Juliet and I occasionally do a workshop titled "Creating Emotional Depth," where we guide writers to identify and describe and heighten the emotions their characters experience. During one of the first times we taught that workshop, I had a sudden epiphany. It might have been because we were sitting in a room full of women with a table laden with donuts in the back, but I blurted out that if a writer was stuck on exploring a female character, she should consider her relationship with food.
In that split second that followed my declaration, I had a flash of regret, because it was most assuredly a moment of projection. I have a complex relationship with food. I pour all my emotions into afternoon binges during tough times; I greet the deepest hurts of my life with rare, but debilitating, bouts of not eating at all. I sense emotion in my gut, and satiety often gets confused - at the synapse level, where I can't do anything about it - with response to fear, to sadness, to loss.
But that does not mean that every woman experiences the same. Or does it?
Certainly, in that room, there was a lot of nodding and hell-yeahs. I've read a fair bit about disordered eating and I'm not naive about how wide-spread it is. We had a good discussion of the subject, and when it was tabled, it was with the knowledge that there was far, far more to say and explore.
Which, of course, I naturally do in fiction.
When I began the AFTERTIME series, Cass's relationship with food was central to her character. (In fact, I think I blogged about it here). Cass practiced asceticism, punishingly so, in a variety of ways; also, the apocalypse delivered a whole new set of food challenges. I saw metaphors in physical denial and hunger; a spectrum of lush vitality to starvation that was being played out on both the global and individual canvases.
But now that all three books have been turned in, I see that I let this subject languish. I did not plumb or pursue it; hunger became a mere by-product of events, something experienced more or less equivalently by everyone, and in simple terms. Food sources were wiped out; a "replacement" nutrition source - adequate but pleasureless - appeared. Sustenance replaced enjoyment. Satiety was not possible; overeating too. The occasional treat (a can of fruit, a cup of coffee) was welcome but not fantasized about, at least on the page. I was aware of sweeping the whole subject aside to pursue other sensory aspects.
Both LOST and WALKING DEAD "fail" in this way as well, surprisingly. I didn't watch either with great care, but from what I remember, in each, the subject is glossed over. Food is scarce, and there are scenes of gathering and preparing (berries and boars and such) but truly it's ludicrous to think that what was shown the audience was even a fraction of the effort or emotional space such a problem would consume. Those people had to be *hungry* - achingly, soul-bruisingly so - but that is not revealed on the screen.
(The treatment of Hurley's character doesn't even bear considering in this realm. I found it objectionable and unrealistic.)
Research with prisoners of war reveals that, in deprivation, people fantasize about food above and beyond anything else - more so than sex, than escape, than any other missed pleasure. This remains a challenge for me to explore in the future.