Monday, October 5, 2009

This all starts with a bowl of oatmeal

This morning our unseasonably warm little town was actually pretty brisk--I stepped outside for a few moments around 7am and shivered with joy.  Then I came inside and made myself a bowl of delicious Trader Joe's oatmeal, just to continue the feeling that there was a blustery day brewing out there.  Alas, as the day wore on, the temperature climbed into the 70s, but luckily part of this new writing diet is learning to pretend, so when I got dressed I picked a decidedly autumnal ensemble.  All my stories begin with a what if, something that isn't real, but that I want to be so I can tell my story.

What ifs, though often imagined in some dark cell of the writer's mind, always contain a seed of essential human truth.  We may have a character in mind, but what makes it a story is the things we imagine that character is up to--the girl who loves a boy from afar, the morally-compromised [insert profession here], the betrayal that sets off a tragic chain of events.  We're always interested in playing things out in ways that they often cannot or do not play out in real life.  We want to know that someone bad gets his comeuppance, and if he doesn't, we want to make a comment on the basic unfairness of life that led to that person not getting their comeuppance.  We want to understand why someone commits suicide, or what someone's last thoughts were the moment before the car skidded off the bridge.  We want to make tangible the things that would otherwise be left to mere speculation.  There's a level of reassurance in this kind of writing, for writer and reader alike--a sense that we are not leaving things so open-ended, that in putting our best guesses on paper they leave the realm of hypothetical and become, at least for the given set of characters, truth.

But what about truth: what about those who, usually in the form of memoir, write to us about their experiences, who either reinforce or deny our speculations about what someone in their position might be experiencing?

I got to thinking about this over the weekend when I came across the following article in The New York Times: After a Death, the Pain That Doesn't Go Away.  According to the article, scientists are beginning to seriously study the unique kind of sadness that follows the death of a loved one, even debating whether or not to call it a syndrome of its own.  Then I saw this new book from a favorite author of mine, Kay Redfield Jamison (she wrote an excellent memoir about her struggle with mental illness called The Unquiet Mind), called Nothing Was the Same, about the death of her husband and the extreme grief that followed for her.  (Other great memoirs I've read in this vein include The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and also Paula by Isabel Allende.) 

All of us cope in different ways with our grief--some can function without incident for weeks only to collapse in a heap later on, while some of us (like me) feel the loss intensely and immediately.  I've heard others posit that our way of dealing with death is uniquely American, and more broadly, Western, that in other cultures death is simply seen as a new beginning.  Here, we mostly think of it as an end.

I think it's the single most interesting and perhaps most universal trait of writing.  We want to know what it's like for someone who has experienced a loss.  Loss scares us more than anything, and we want to understand if what we feel is like what others feel.  We want to know if we are crazy or not.  We want to know what it will be like.

Most of my stories are about grief in some form or another.  When I'm doing planning in my head for something I'm about to write, I'm always thinking in terms of someone or something that's been taken.  It's a long and winding road to finding out how a person emerges from deep sadness and learns to cope again, or in some cases, never does.

Real or pretend, our grief stories are always the most powerful.

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