Now that I’m writing a novel, I enter each scene, blank, knowing the feelings I want it to evoke. But then comes the hard part: I have to figure out what happens to evoke those feelings.
I wish I’d kept better track of all the things that have happened in my life to make me feel a certain way. A Feelings File, if you will.
I wish I had a bank of vignettes, things that have happened to me or that I’ve seen that I can make my character experience or see, to evoke certain feelings.
Poet and buddy Gabrielle Bates told me this reminds her of Solmaz Sharif’s poem “Vulnerability Study,” which is simply a series of images that evoke the feeling of vulnerability, such as:
“baba holding his pants
up at the checkpoint”
Imagery, as Gabby reminded me when we taught our class on sad songs together, can actually come from any sense: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
The Feelings File is essentially an index of memories that might be used as imagery in future works.
Feelings Files Entries
File under: Rage
If I want to feel rage, for example, I merely have to think of my nephew’s fourth birthday party. We had it at a museum, a museum that had a gift shop with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. My four-year-old nephew saw toys and ran for them, charging head-first into the clear glass. He’s 17 now, but I can still feel the bang of his head on glass reverberate through my entire body. Worst of all, the attendant acted like he couldn’t give two shits about it.
I could have ripped his head off.
File under: Adoration
On the other end of the spectrum, I’m observing a French-speaking family in my favorite bookstore, Elliott Bay Books. They have little boys, too. One, about three, I can tell is begging for a book. The father, I can tell, is letting him know he’s not buying it for him. The little boy held it up, and said in this high, sing-songy voice, “S’il vous plait, Papa!”
My chest caved in as a sonic boom of cuteness hit my heart.
File under: Sadness
Ok I don’t know why all these stories have cute little boys in them, but here’s a third. I’m waiting for a dinner reservation, outside, and there’s a little boy trying to play with other boys. This boy is deaf, and they don’t speak sign language, so I see him struggle to be included. He goes over to a tree, by himself. I want him to feel seen, so I just give him a quick H-I in sign. His face brightens and he starts signing to me rapidly, not knowing H-I is about the extent of my signing.
His face when he realized. Soul claw.
File under: Awkward
Ooh I got one that’s just adults. A friend is having a small birthday get-together. The room contains her dad, brother, boyfriend, best friend, and her best friend’s boyfriend. Her friend’s boyfriend gets way too drunk. At some point in the night, during a quiet moment when we can all hear, he says to my friend’s father, “Sir, you sure do have a sexy daughter.” I could write a thesis on the awkwardness this created. It was 360 degrees of awkward, awkward AF for every relationship in the room.
Starting a Feelings File
If I had started keeping track of thse little scenes and the feelings they evoked years ago, I could, by now, have a bank of ideas for scenes.
When I need something sad, I could simply go to Sad, and find:
A bird trying to walk on a broken leg, the fundraising dinner with only two people there, the toddler in the shopping cart whose mom told her to shut up.
Cate Kennedy says you have to find the ouch, in your work. So when an ouch lands your way in real life, capture it.
I set up a quick Feelings File template for you with 20 headers (and emojis!) which comes in formats for Scrivener, Word, and Google Docs.