The “Pee-Pee Feeling” in Writing: Making Readers Squirm


There are a few scenes I remember reading or watching on TV that, while they make for memorable moments, are almost impossible to get through. They give me what my long-time friend Julia has coined “the pee-pee feeling. It’s that feeling you get when you encounter something that makes you so embarrassed, or grossed out, or uncomfortable, or horrified, that you really just want to leave the room or put the book down or change the channel when it happens. I know it’s kind of a crude thing to call it, but it’s the best descriptor I have ever come across for this feeling. It’s somewhere between having to use the bathroom, having way too much caffeine, and getting a cold chill all at the same time. It’s awful, like being a worm on a hook. And hey, here’s how to do it to other people!

But first, here are some examples. How about the rape scene in The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini? Or the scene in which Amir goes to rescue the boy Sohrab from Assef, the former boy-rapist-turned-adult-sadist. The description of how that poor child is dressed and treated is one of the most uncomfortable, horrible things I have ever read. I don’t think I ever got through the entire chapter; I think I just moved on.

Haven’t read The Kite Runner? What about the scene in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan where author Lisa See gives the first detailed description I have ever read of a mother binding (and breaking) her daughter’s feet to give her the best chance at a good marriage and a secure life? Even though it’s been years since I read it, I am spreading out my toes inside of my shoes as I think about it, in protest. If you can’t imagine it and haven’t read the book, here’s a reference for you of what bound feet look like:

As a mother, I don’t know how someone could do this to a child, yet women did it for centuries. They felt they had no choice. And I could barely get through reading about it even once. I am a wimp.

Here’s a different kind of “pee-pee feeling” just for you Jane Austin fans. How about the feeling you get every time Elizabeth Bennet’s mother opens her mouth, especially in front of guests? Oh, she’s SO embarrassing. Every time I read this book or see the PBS version (which I try to watch every now and again because it’s soooo gooood, thanks to Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle), I almost can’t get through her scenes. If she were my mom, I would just die. It makes my own parents seem so tame—thanks Mom and Dad!

It takes a really good writer to make a reader squirm. Writing a scene like this—or a conversation like this, which is even harder—is a high-level achievement for any writer, and I challenge anyone to do it without a lot of blood and guts. (That is perhaps why the horror genre gets less respect that it often deserves. People think it’s easy to go for the gross-out. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Today’s Writing Exercise

Think of something in real life that has given you “the pee-pee feeling.” It could be a very embarrassing moment you experienced, or a moment of real squeamishness, or something you read about that you could just describe from a different point of view. Write that passage. Make it highly descriptive. Give it the power to make readers squirm in the same way that you did when you read or experienced it. Then, go outside and shake your hands and stomp your feet and go, “Bleahhh!” What a yucky feeling!

Now, think about how you could fit this passage, or at least this new writing skill, into your next work. Ugh, do you even want to? Sure you do!



One Comment

Ekta Garg

I completely agree with you on the rape scene in The Kite Runner! I actually bought the book before reading it (a rare event for me because I’m incredibly careful with what I add to my personal library; I re-read my books and only add books I actually WILL read again.) Eventually I had to give the book to the local library because I knew I’d never be able to re-read that scene or even the end when Sohrab tries to kill himself. Those were way too much for me!


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