Category: death

Short, dark and than some

My short story “Taming the Tiger” will be published in the collection, The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, later this spring by Untreed Reads. I wrote the story more than a year ago, so it was a little jarring to look back through it as it’s being prepared for publication and realize how dark it is. There is a sinister love triangle, a twisted power struggle, and a Talented Mr. Ripley-style murder. This isn’t the first time I’ve written dark short fiction. In fact, when I started thinking about it, all of my short stories, both published and unpublished, explore disquieting themes and paint bleak pictures of humans and their motivations.

All of this got me wondering: just what kind of monster am I?!

It’s probably common for people to assume that writers match their writing. Ernest Hemingway, whose books center on dashing, macho men battling their inner demons, was a dashing, macho man, battling inner demons. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Gatsby-like party boy. When asked where his dark inspirations stemmed from, Stephen King had this answer: “People think I must be a strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It’s in a jar on my desk.” (For the record, King isn’t quite the sicko his books would make him appear, but he was a raging alcoholic for decades, and even now he’s known for being quirky and elusive).

In my case, though, the darkness of my imaginary worlds doesn’t match up with my personality. I’m generally jolly and usually upbeat. I like wiener dog races and the color yellow and pictures of newborn babies wearing giant hair bows. My childhood had the usual share of minor traumas, but I grew up surrounded by loving family members. So why, when I sit down at a computer, does blood and fire pour out of my fingertips?

My fellow mystery writer and good friend, Tracee DeHahn, and I were talking about this phenomenon recently. She, too, is a uniformly upbeat person who comes from a stable background. We’re both relatively new to the world of mystery writing and have been wowed by the kindness and affability of the mystery authors we meet. Seriously, Malice Domestic, the annual gathering of writers who spend their days mentally murdering people, is filled with folks who are, on the whole, kinder than your average church bake sale committee (though, it has to be said, much, much raunchier).

My theory is that for many writers, the page is a safe place to process negative emotions. For me at least, fiction is like an external hard drive to store my darkness. Even cheerful people like me have heaps and heaps of bad thoughts that need to find expression.

Maybe I particularly like to visit those dark places in short fiction because it seems to allow me just enough time to explore those themes without absorbing them. Short fiction is a long weekend in the Land of Id — the raw, exposed, and sometimes downright yucky swamp in my emotional landscape. Visiting Id-Land allows me to appreciate life back at my emotional dwelling place: Giant Baby Bow Town.

 

Competing Narratives

Yesterday, when a journalist described the “competing narratives” surrounding President Trump’s now-infamous July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, I was struck for the first time by the word narrative.  As a fiction writer, the idea of narrative obviously isn’t new to me, but that news report suddenly made me think of the foundational importance of storytelling in very different way. Narratives are stories, accounts of people/characters and events connected in such a way that they form a coherent whole. I wasn’t only surprised that the transcript of one fairly short phone call could pitch an entire nation into spin doctoring frenzy. I was surprised that I hadn’t ever realized that “narrative” describes what we all do, all the time, about everything.

When constructing a narrative, a storyteller has to make judgments about which facts are important, and which can be set aside. I mean, Hercule Poirot is a fascinating character, but nobody wants to read 50 irrelevant pages about him waiting for a taxi. Context is also crucial in building a coherent story. The genius of The Girl on the Train is how the slow build-up of context continually reframes the disappearance that lies at the heart of the novel’s action.

There’s a great section in Sarah Blake’s novel The Guest Book where one of the main characters, a history professor, shows her class a picture of a grave. The tombstone is inscribed with the deceased person’s name and dates of birth and death. After the death date, July 1863, are the words “At Gettysburg, Far From Home.” She asks the class, “What is the history here?” The obvious answers are thrown out (Civil War battles, soldiers), but then the less obvious ones start to emerge (the home front, post-war memorial tributes). From there, even more obscure histories become possible (How do we even know this person was a soldier? Could he have been a slave brought to Gettysburg with his master? Do we know if this grave is even located in America?).

History is not discovering facts; it’s crafting narrative. And the task of a responsible historian is to gather the tools at her disposal–dates, voices, documents, material culture, artifacts, etc.–and tell the most convincing story that can be told about a chosen topic. Inevitably, that narrative will be shaped both by the storyteller and by the audience.

When looked at this way, it’s not just novels or history or politics that rely on creating narratives, it’s every single thing we as humans do. If I tell my husband about my day, I’m creating a narrative. Maybe I include the part where I went to Pilates class and walked the dog, but omit the part where I gorged on Halloween candy while watching the wedding episode of Outlander.

I’ve written before about the work of Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain. In her memoir, On Living, Egan explains that an important step in helping ease the final transition of a dying person can be to help them craft a life story, an autobiographical narrative, for themselves. In most cases, this isn’t a matter of literally writing anything or trying to remember everything that happened in a person’s life. For some people, crafting a life story may mean reframing a trauma as an experience that made them stronger. For others, it may mean accepting (or not) that some wishes will never be granted. In all cases, though, people are making decisions about inclusion/exclusion of facts (or beliefs) and giving them context. They are creating narrative.

Humans have developed this wonderful tool — narrative — to parse and make sense of our very complicated world. Is there such a thing as objective truth? Drop a rock and see if it floats. Sometimes facts and context are clear enough that even the most skillful spin doctor would have a hard time creating a competing narrative.

The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 2

I’ve always tended to believe that the stories we construct about a thing are every bit as important as the actual thing. Feelings and shared meanings connect us and make us human. Maybe this is why I love writing novels. Fiction allows me to couch my own truths in other people’s stories.

I’ve seen first hand what happens when facts are divorced from meaning. Before my baby was born, I used to occasionally volunteer at our vet school’s Pet Loss Hotline. I’ve written before about how the most traumatized calls I fielded were from people whose questions could never be answered. Maybe they had trusted their veterinarian, only to later wonder if that trust was misplaced. It was impossible to go back in time and see if another choice would’ve resulted in a different outcome. Or perhaps their unanswerable question was even more visceral, i.e. one day, their pet simply disappeared. These were the callers who couldn’t move past the loss. As humans, unless we can fit a fact into a narrative we can understand, our brains get stuck in a perpetual “does not compute” cycle. Until we can create an answer to WHY?, all the facts in the world just don’t add up to a hill of beans.

In my last post, I said that I used to believe that meaning trumped facts. That was my explanation for the enduring pain of some of the Pet Loss Hotline callers, and that’s why I initially found myself nodding along when Kerry Egan, the renowned writer and hospice chaplain, suggests in her wonderful, poignant book, On Living, that the essence of a person’s experience, rather than the biographical details, are what remains at the end of life. At one point, Kerry tells the story of a dying woman who more than likely conned her way through life, and continued to fake her way towards death. Kerry chooses to focus on the power of the woman’s end-of-life experiences. “In the midst of unknowing,” she writes, “something absolute and real and true happened. Two women learned not just that they could love but that they were worthy of love.”

To me, however, the implications of that position have become less and less tenable in the era of #fakenews and #alternativefacts. The woman in Kerry’s story probably intended to deceive those around her, or perhaps had become so enamored of her own false narrative that she no longer recognized the truth. Either way, I’ve come to reject the idea that allowing someone free rein to craft their own life narrative is acceptable. Call me hardhearted, but I think Kerry lets the dying woman off too easy.

I will argue all day long about your opinion on an issue or a detail from a past event that we each remember differently. Just ask my husband. But I’ve become an ardent defender of the idea that where there is knowable truth, we must try our best to arrive at it. We cannot argue about facts. The blurring of the line between opinion, narrative, and reality and the maligning of the legitimate information is Demagogue 101. Prizing a narrative, whether it be about the size of a crowd or the size of a person’s hands, over knowable facts is dangerous and corrosive. Scientific progress and moral betterment rely on a basic acceptance that intrinsic truth exists.

The Buddha said, “Everything rests on the point of intention.” That has become my new yardstick for deciding when #alternativefacts might indeed be preferable to reality. A person who shares a falsely dramatic memory of walking seven miles uphill through the snow to get to school as a child probably doesn’t intend to deceive or to profit from crafting a false narrative, so I’ll let it go. No (intent to) harm, no foul. A dad who falsely tells his kid that her artwork is beautiful or a friend who reassures her bestie that no one will even notice her ill-advised foray into ombré hair color are almost definitely intending to be kind. A politician who spews whoppers to avoid the consequences of his actions? A woman, dying or not, who gains her lover’s trust in part by crafting a false life story? No free passes. It’s all about intention.

Then again, we all know what paves the road to hell.

 

Life, Death, and Ginger Tea

Recently I paid a visit to a dear friend of mine who’s been ill. I shared the news of my pregnancy and told her about the unrelenting nausea I’d been experiencing. She, too, had been dealing with nausea, so she whipped out some Saltines for me to munch on and gave me her husband’s recipe for fresh ginger tea. We commiserated about how physical illness colors your entire worldview and makes it hard to concentrate. We both expressed some relief in the knowledge that no matter how bad things got, our suffering would soon come to an end.

There was a lot of commonality to discuss, but one major point of divergence–while I knew that my suffering would end with the birth of my baby, if not sooner, my friend knew that her suffering would likely only end with her death. She’d been told a few months previously that her condition was worsening and her decline would soon become inexorable. Just a week or so before I visited her, she began the transition from managing her chronic condition to moving towards in-home hospice care. She’s now in the process of spending her remaining time revisiting moments in her life with friends and family and cementing her legacy. Because she is the friggin’ bomb, my wonderful, compassionate, witty, vibrant friend is confronting her death with what feels a whole lot like joie de vivre. I can’t tell you how much I will miss her.

It may seem odd that in this time when I should perhaps be focused on the new life thumping away inside my womb, I’m instead spending a lot of time thinking about death. If you’ve read my blog for a while maybe this comes as less of a surprise, as I’ve written before about the way humor and death sometimes intertwine and how my own spiritual development is very much bound up in my views of the afterlife. You may also have taken a hint from the fact that I write murder-centric books about a hospital chaplain, who is often confronted with life-and-death dilemmas.

It turns out that I’m not the only person who sees life’s beginning and life’s ending as inextricably linked. In fact, I’d put forth that they’re not even two sides of the same coin. They’re more like the tension in a tug-of-war rope–the animating forces of the rope itself. Without them both pulling on you at the same time, the rope (i.e. you) would just be lying on the ground like a wet noodle.

If this post has put you in a philosophical frame of mind (and/or stirred up an existential crisis), I’d suggest some further reading, a recent New York Times piece “Looking Death in the Face” that my living/dying friend posted on Facebook. Happy living. xx