Thursday, February 18, 2010

Capturing emotion through words

"Show, don't tell." That's the advice all writers get, isn't it? Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, the best stories come from description borne of narrative. But finding the right words to illustrate emotion can be tough, I know.

There are some interviews, though, that make it easy.

In early December, 2001, I was doing a series on local folks who had volunteered with the Red Cross in New York City, going where they were needed, doing what they were asked, assisting with the aftermath of Sept. 11. Thinking back, it was a confusing, depressing time. But these volunteers were amazing. They were sincere. They were dedicated. And most of them had done simple, administrative work. But not the last woman I interviewed.

She didn't want to talk to me at first. She almost canceled, she told me. Nothing personal - she was just nervous.

She had been assigned to the Fresh Kills landfill, where they were taking the tons of scrap metal from the Twin Towers. Day after day, she told me, the barges would come in, loaded down with twisted, gnarled steel. She didn't know what was on the metal, or under it, and she didn't want to look.

"The smell," she told me, grasping my wrist, "was indescribable."

She had short red hair, and her eyes were bloodshot. Sometimes when she was talking, her hands shook, and when I looked down at them, I saw the nails had been chewed down past the quick - bitten so low they bled. When she saw me looking, she curled her fingertips under.

While she was on assignment, she said, she made coffee for exhausted workers. She fed their dogs. She washed their clothes and made their lunches. She wanted to cry nearly every day she was there, she said, thinking about those endless piles of smoking metal. But she didn't, she said. She didn't think she should. But when she got home, she said, she almost couldn't stop.

She ran her hand through her hair over and over again throughout the interview, and she burst into tears twice. At the end, she thanked me for listening.

"She's having a hard time," the Red Cross facilitator told me after she left. She didn't need to tell me. I'd already been shown.

Nearly two weeks later, the volunteer showed up at my newsroom with an envelope she'd made for me - for my little daughter, actually. She'd put it together herself. It was a letter from Santa, along with some reindeer "food" and some fake snow - in case we didn't get any that year, she said, and she smiled.

"It made me feel good to be able to do something for someone," she told me. "Even something small." I looked down at her hands as she handed me the envelope. Her fingertips were just starting to heal.

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