Thursday, August 20, 2015

Running in the Dark

It was 5:30 am. I was awake. I’d done my Achilles therapy, I was dressed, and I was ready to run. I was determined to run, despite the fact that it was dark and the trail I wanted to run on had no lights. I grabbed my phone and that piercing flashlight I got at a Writing the Other workshop, and headed out the door.*

During the first half of the trail, I passed no one. This made sense, because it was raining. Later, as I began to pass other runners and walkers in the dark, I noticed something. Normally, by daylight, the people I pass are about 60-70% female-bodied (I say bodied, because I will not presume I know anyone’s gender by looking at a body). But this morning, in the dark and then in the gloom of a late, cloud-shrouded dawn, it was 100% male-bodied. And one dog, also a dude. They were all friendly, all responding to my greetings. One guy even apologized for running by and thus ruining my solitary walk. And I laughed. Only a man would think that was my first concern when I saw someone else on the trail.

Female-bodied folks, what exactly was on my mind as I walked in the woods, in the dark, in the rain, alone?

We’ve been socialized to have one answer. Despite the fact that it is more dangerous to drive a car than to run alone at night. Despite the fact that women are more likely to be attacked by their romantic partners and family members. The threat of attack from the lurking stranger is culturally embedded, and it restricts the freedom of women around the world. Yes, all women. You may be shaking your head, saying that no, that isn’t you, that you run at night and it doesn’t bother you. But if you were indeed attacked, you would surely be blamed for going out alone. Because the onus is on the woman to protect herself from men who apparently cannot control themselves.

What’s the most treacherous thing about going for a run in the woods, in the dark, in the rain, alone?

It isn’t rapists. Though that was in my mind from the moment I got up and saw how dark it was, how rainy and foggy and quiet. It isn’t attackers. Though I couldn’t help but look behind me on the trail, my flashlight bouncing into moths, sure that the pattering rain was someone’s footsteps. It isn’t murderers, though I peered between the trees and startled at deer and cardinals and the sounds of owls.

It’s frogs. 

Seriously, people. They are a hazard. They hang out on the trail, and they look like leaves, but they’re slimy and they move, and I dare you to keep your balance when you step on one. Frogs are treacherous motherfuckers.

Oh, and I’m going out tomorrow in the dark too. 

"Kroete3" by rupp.de - taken myself. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kroete3.JPG#/media/File:Kroete3.JPG
This is the face of evil.

* Spouse was sleeping peacefully, because he doesn’t ever, EVER say dumb shit about why I shouldn’t go running alone. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Unreadable Face

He looked down from her, his expression unreadable.

She stared at them as they milled about with unreadable expressions.

I wish I could have told you, but her expression was unreadable.

My expression was probably unreadable, but I wasn’t about to change it.

.    .    .

When I read “unreadable,” the only face I see is frozen in a rictus, drooping forward as if its strings were cut. Unreadable expressions are things from Camazotz, artless and gray. There is no reward for reading them. Replace “unreadable” with an ellipsis, and you’d get the same information, lost in a realm of indescribable people, toneless music, indefinable clothing, and indistinguishable food.

Every time I read the unreadable face—and it pops up all sorts of stories, even among my favorite authors—I wonder what the writer and editors were thinking. Why choose to say nothing? Was it on purpose, or did it slip out? Was the emotion too complex? Was the character too tough to have a facial display? Was the narrator too poor a facial reader? Was the story in an inescapable corner? Were they aware of the irony of an unreadable expression in a readable medium?

Certainly there are legitimate reasons one might be tempted to use an unreadable expression. After all, most people aren’t very good at articulating nuances in a person’s face. But ask yourself first: what’s your process in reading an expression? You may conclude that a person’s face is unreadable, but do you jump to that conclusion instantly? No. If it were readable, one might respond immediately, but an unreadable face means that you are scrutinizing the face and cannot decide what it means. You analyze the tilt of the brow, the narrowness of the eyes, the tremor of the lips. And then your actions reflect the mood created by the other person’s face, “readable” or not. Because if science has told us anything about facial expressions, it’s that neuronormative human interactions are webbed with immediate, unconscious responses.

When you’re stuck with an unreadable expression, try one of the following:

· This is an opportunity for a “show, not tell” moment. Your character might not understand their object’s facial expression as a whole, but what is your character seeing? Are the lips thin? The nostrils wide? Write that. Imagine your reader like a toddler jumping up and down, shouting, but I wanna see! Don’t tell me it is unreadable. I’m a reader! TRY ME.

· Human response to faces is extremely swift: most of us respond in a matter of seconds. Often, though we cannot articulate what an expression tells us, we respond to it anyway. Consider implying the expression in the response.

· Divide the face between macroexpressions and microexpressions. A macroexpression involves the entire face, and is more or less universally understood. A microexpression is a fleeting change in the facial expression which might go unnoticed or be misinterpreted.

· Writing exercise: think of a facial expression for every letter of the alphabet. Choose literally any other descriptor for this person’s face. Examples:

Absent
Bleak
Coy
Downcast
Ecstatic
Fixed
Glowering
Haunted
Innocent
Justified
Keen
Languid
Mischievous
Nasty
Obdurate
Pitying
Quizzical
Radiant
Sardonic
Taut
Unconvincing
Vacant
Wan
Xenophobic
Yielding
Zealous

There. What’s your character’s face doing now?

Google "unreadable face." Yeah, I couldn't find a face without an expression
either. But I did find this happy fox, and it's always a good day to see a fox.