Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Blood Ran Cold

“Her/His blood ran cold.”

It’s one of those phrases you see just before the character senses danger or hears bad news. It’s one of those things you probably don’t quantify in your head as you read, or “feel” in that way we feel so much of what we read, what we watch. It’s harder to identify with than a short, sharp shock; a little elusive.

Yet, when it happens in your life, it has such power. The roof of your mouth chills, the backs of your arms prickle – freezing, no matter where you are, no matter the weather, no matter the clothes or even the immediate protection of your surroundings. Your body shivers with a cold at odds with reality, with any stimuli available but your indomitable BRAIN, which has created its own physical circumstances from within.

With so many of the people I love most in the world half its circumference away from me, it happens, often, in the silent comfort of my own house, my own couch. I can be sitting, nestled with the warmest Editor Cat in existence, or eating hot food, or wrapped in my thick house-sweater that isn’t even fit for public use anymore … and some stray email changes the climate for me, inverts the relativity of Diane-the-Living-Space-Heater and suddenly I’m a lump of metal, endothermic properties abolished, icy as a Zhivago winter, every molecule stilled – and yet fingers still shaking, the whole of myself brittle and waiting only to be toppled, to crumble into the dust of frost, like that scraped off a January windshield.

The symptom that always fixates my attention is the roof of my mouth going cold, which is why “blood runs cold” seems such a weak description of the moment. It’s the bones going cold; the head, felt more immediately than the heart – tongue numb with it – eyes, even, suddenly refrigerated – the wary pucker of a certain nether muscle, suddenly aching with pressure. That other alarm reaction, where the body seems to want to expel all its contents, too urgently.

When even the saliva in your mouth feels freezing, “blood runs cold” loses its accuracy …

More even than heartbeat-thumping, or “seeing red” (one of those descriptions I have never been able to make sense of; it describes no physical response I can even approximate to emotional experience), or the sudden mental detachment of danger or rage, “blood runs cold” seems the bone-deep emotional action, the sub-mental expression of what makes humans animal.


Not long ago, some news outlet or other spread the news that human beings experience cold-sympathy: when we see images or read/hear descriptions of people in frigid conditions, we feel it ourselves – to the extent that, Some Study Shows, our actual body temperatures drop.

Interestingly, this is not replicated with warm temperatures. Perhaps “sympathy” in any of its senses is just not raise-able for those on pretty beaches. But, if we see another person in an icy blast, we experience it ourselves, with them.

Growing up, we used to get a smile at my mom when she said she got cold watching the very movie I invoked above, Dr. Zhivago.

Image: Getty

Yet we also did understand what she meant. I know I’ve felt that way, that physical participation in something I’m not supposed to be part of. Other Some Studies have Shown that we experience entertainment in a pretty holistically “identified” way, at one with a main character.

(One worries, momentarily, about what that might mean for the *author* of a work about an ax-wielding barbarian. Then stops.)


For my writer pals I’ve coaxed into commenting here sometimes (and for ANYONE with a word to say!) what sympathetic states of being have you worked on recreating … or speculating about … in a work of yours (Donnaeverheart, I expect you’ve got some thoughts!)?

Or what writerly descriptions leave you, ahem, cold in terms of what they actually say to you as a reader? (I’ve always had a hard time with “She looked at him through her lashes” myself).

Or, for some real fun: what makes your blood run cold?


Colin Smith said...

We're advised to avoid cliches like the plague (har har), and that's good advice. For me, when I'm tempted to use a descriptive cliche (e.g., "blood runs cold"), I ask myself the same thing you did, Diane: have I ever really experienced that? Or, put another way, Is that how *I* would feel in this situation? I can't say I know what it's like for my blood to run cold. I know the spine-tingle, the goosebumps, and the heart-skipping-a-beat, and those are a real challenge to put into a story without falling to cliche.

I think the last time my blood ran cold was when I had an IV drip in my arm... :)

Anonymous said...

Okay, so, as I read this post, (which was absolutely stunning as far as describing other ways to describe "his/her blood ran cold,") I thought, make that THOUGHT you were getting ready to say you'd received an email from an agent. And, I thought that because I swear to God, even though I've been signed with him for going on 3 years, I still get this alarming rush of anxiety that makes my mouth dry up like I've got high fever, and have spent the night on the bathroom floor - if you know what I mean - every time I get an email from John Talbot.

I'm still really early into my new WIP, and I haven't had any opportunity to intro that level of fear into my MC yet. But, with the other project, the one "waiting in the wings," I had this at one point, "She told herself, calm down, don’t let him think you’ve seen anything. Is it possible to smile? A smile would be good about right now. Her lips froze, like she’d been sucking on ice cubes. Her throat shriveled, turning into a miniscule pipe, so dry, she could hear herself wheezing. Her thoughts flew within her head like those earlier aggravating insects, disconnected, frantic, needing to make sense and unable to. Think of something. Can’t you? Anything. Anything will do."

I don't think you know, but I was mugged once. I don't think you've been reading my blog long enough to know that. I try to remember how I felt -even though I don't want to..., and write that down. That's a bit of the above. Having said that, you did a bang up job. You can write, no doubt about it.

DLM said...

Oh my goodness, thank you so much! The interior monologue is perfect, the physicality and there-ness. I did *not* know you'd been mugged, but am so sorry to hear it - but we use everything, don't we? (I have a post on tap tonight if I can get to it, about the aggression of passive aggression.)

It's funny, even the word miniscule is harrowing here. I think that's a great secret of language, that words are so limber and can do more than they seem to indicate when we're used to them.

Just KNEW you would be able to get this interesting. :)

Colin - HAH on the IV drip!!! I think I've only ever had that done once, and it does do that, doesn't it? Of course, medical situations can do that, drip or no drip - White Coat Syndrome. Thank goodness that's not one of my fears ... (so far!).