What makes you cry?

There’s a wonderful scene in Broadcast News in which Jane Craig, played by Holly Hunter, unplugs the phone in her hotel room, sits down on the bed, and starts weeping and wailing. She cries passionately for several minutes before pulling herself together and confidently going about her business. Later, one realizes that crying is part of the character’s daily routine. I love the scene, not only because Hunter makes crying funny, but because it shows crying in all its cathartic and narcissistic glory, crying as ritual and refresher, crying as a near-religious experience.

My son came home from Kindergarten recently talking about a birthday party for a girl named Ruby, to which he hadn’t been invited. “At first I was sad, but now I’m so glad I didn’t get invited,” he said.

“Why are you glad?”

“It was a princess party,” he said. “It made Jack and Joey cry.”

Jack and Joey are twins, and their play dates with my son invariably involve light sabers, wrestling, swords, and other forms of pretend violence. Their own birthday party this year had a pirate theme. They probably had great expectations for Ruby’s birthday party. I imagined Jack and Joey bursting into tears upon realizing that they were surrounded by girls in princess dresses and giant pink balloons. I have to admit I couldn’t stop laughing.

Of course, to the twins, the princess party was no laughing matter. Their tears were real. Disappointment is a powerful thing.  As adults, most of us remember well a few instances in our childhood that made us cry with abandon. When I was small, I cried once when my mother made me eat a tomato. The taste and texture of the tomato actually made me vomit. It made me call into question her love for me, that she would force such a terrible thing upon me–oh, the tyranny of tomatoes. Now, I love tomatoes, and have tried numerous times without success to grow them. In hindsight, the incident is amusing, but at the time it was quite trying.

I also have vivid memories of crying in Mrs. Monk’s first grade class at Greystone Christian School in Mobile, Alabama, during a lesson about clocks. Mrs. Monk was a kind and gentle teacher, and she came over to ask me what was the matter. “I don’t understand time,” I cried. I still don’t. A couple of years later, another incident at Greystone brought me to tears. My third grade class had had a potato-growing contest. Each student had brought a potato to school, stuck it in a jar of water, and waited for it to sprout buds. My potato exceeded all expectations and, much to my astonishment, won the contest.

I was so proud of my potato. I had never won anything before. I always got picked last in team sports, never got tagged in tag or sent over in Red Rover, never had my head tapped when the class played Seven Up. I was too shy to include myself in games on the playground, so shy, in fact, that I would frequently sit in agony through the entire day rather than ask my teacher if I could go to the bathroom. The potato was my greatest mark of achievement to date, the first thing I ever had to be proud of. As I sat there after school waiting to be picked up, a fourth-grade boy named Boone Scroggins took my potato out of the jar and tore off all the shoots and smashed the potato to the ground. Having not much of a backbone in those days,I doubt I said anything to him. What I remember clearly is crying until my dad arrived to pick me up, and crying when I got home, and crying until I fell asleep, and crying the next morning–all over a broken potato.

I might have cried even more had I known that the potato growing contest was the only thing I would win, academically speaking, for many years. Come to think of it, it was the only thing I won for the rest of my educational career, until my senior year of high school, when I won $1200 from a local department store for a poem I wrote for Mothers’ Day. I was terrible at math, dismal at science, and mediocre at spelling. The only trick I had up my sleeve was writing, which I loved. But being creatively inclined didn’t get one very far in school in Alabama in the seventies. (I suspect, having heard a number of teachers lament the fact that No Child Behind leaves them no time to teach creative writing in the classroom, that being creatively inclined might get a child no further in school now than it did then). At any rate, it was a long, dry spell between the potato and the poem.

Of course, a potato may not seem like much to cry over, any more so than a princess party. But a child’s tears over a potato or a princess party are just as real to the child as are an adult’s tears over the breakup of a relationship or the loss of a job. It is all a matter of perspective. We tend to tell children to stop crying, that “it’s only a potato,” but context is everything. One of the first rules of fiction writing is that a crisis or desire need not be theoretically “big” in order to be dramatic; it need only be big to the character. Maybe the character wants nothing more than a drink of water on a hot day, or a nod of approval from a demanding superior, but if she wants it badly enough, and if that desire is made real to the reader, then the desire can be incredibly dramatic.

All these thoughts about children and tears made me wonder–what makes me cry now? Disappointment still does. Back when I was living in New York City, before I moved to San Francisco and started teaching, I cried when my dozens of resumes and job applications went unanswered. When my husband and I were trying to buy our first house 9 years ago in San Francisco’s insanely inflated market, we bid on more than 30 houses before we finally got a bite. Each time the realtor called to tell us we had been outbid, I cried. I cried the first time I got a bad review from a newspaper, although that was many years ago; these days, when I get a bad review in a newspaper, I take the writer’s way out, for better or worse, and google the reviewer’s name to see other bad reviews she has written, which never fails to make me feel much better, because then I can tell myself, “This reviewer hates everything,” whether or not it is true.

I cry whenever I hear of a big natural disaster that causes loss of life–tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes. I cried on the day I started this blog, when I heard that we were conducting military actions in Libya, because it all seemed so overwhelming–Fukushima, Sendai, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya. I cry at movies when children are separated from their mothers, even if the children are animated and they’re just going to college, as in Toy Story 3. I cry for a couple of days each month if my husband looks at me the wrong way, but he is a very kind husband, and he knows my schedule better than I know it myself, so on those days when I am prone to tears he will look at me from out of the blue and say, “I love you so much, you’re so beautiful.” It matters not that his observation has no grounding in reality, that he mutters these words at precisely the moment that I’m grumpy, unshowered, puffy from water weight, clad in sweatpants, and filled with self-loathing. The words themselves are generally enough to curb my tears.

There is something particularly satisfying about crying when there is no real grief involved, crying when there is nothing at stake–crying, for example, at movies and books. A woman recently told me that she cried for days after reading the ending of one of my books. I apologized for making her cry, but on the inside I was smiling, in no small part because I felt I had succeeded in making the fiction seem real–my joy only mildly diluted by the fact that she cried because, in her own words, she “didn’t like the ending.” My ending was her princess party. I think of my dear Uncle Curtis, a brilliant and very funny man who passed away last year, who used to always cry at AT&T commercials. I cry while watching American Idol every time some poor kid from Podunk, U.S.A. gets a ticket to Hollywood. Because I am happy for them, but also because I worry that they won’t make it. My tears are genuine but short-lived. I can cry without consequence, because tomorrow, I won’t remember the kid from Podunk, U.S.A.

The question: What makes you cry?

I searched and searched for a picture of Holly Hunter crying to use in this blog post. I didn’t find one. But I found something better–an utterly charming blog out of Pittsburgh called I Am Mini Van, in which Kate Meyers talks about why she is driving to Atlanta, Nashville, and Birmingham to take her 16-year-old daughter to see Justin Bieber–among other things. She also has a post about Holly Hunter and the 5-Minute Cry.

Read about gender differences and the health benefits of crying.

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4 Responses to What makes you cry?

  1. Chellis Ying says:

    Nice post, Michelle! This montage scene from Up does it to me every time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GroDErHIM_0

  2. I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one afraid to ask permission to go to the bathroom during elementary school. I was a painfully shy child, which no one believes now. (Cheerleading helped.) I’m still scared to call strangers on the phone.

    If I make it through a month without crying, I worry about my emotional well being. I cried at Toy Story 3. I cry when I hear about a stranger’s pet dying. I cry when I’m happy, sad or mad. I cry at music, kind of a lot actually. A particularly well-written sentence can elicit the same reaction. I bawled at the end of the final Harry Potter book. (The hour–2 a.m.–surely didn’t help.)

    I may have also gotten a little teary eyed during Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. But we won’t talk about that.

  3. Lori P says:

    What makes me cry?
    I fell apart one morning when I discovered the blacks in my outfit, black top/black skirt/red sweater, didn’t match, and I’d be seeing an ex-boyfriend. I remember literally shaking. Of course, it was nothing, but at the time, the universe was closing in.

    I cried the other night when I tried to make a nice dinner for Mr. Hubby, after I’d been sick for 10 days. I sauteed the shrimp with their shells on. Then I ran from the room. He patiently peeled all the hot shrimp, wiped his hands, and gave me a long hug.

    I cried in happiness when my best friend walked down the aisle.

    I definitely have to limit my viewing of all natural disaster coverage. The little Japanese children in the shelters about killed me.

    And I cry whenever I see my nephew’s mug shot in the online jail roster.

    Of course, these are just a sampling. I can cry on a dime. But I hope they help!

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks so much for your comment,Lori. Your husband sounds like a gem. The black on black on red outfit crying jag actually makes sense to me–sometimes you just need everything to work out, and it doesn’t. Like you, natural disasters put me in emotional overdrive. I always think about the kids–and about the parents trying to protect their kids but being unable to do so–awful!

      I’m sorry to hear about your nephew.

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