I Can’t Do That

I’ve been stuck on Debts of My Fathers for a couple of months now. It’s not the traditional “writer’s block” where I’m blocked on the writing itself. I’ve written plenty of other stuff. It’s also not that I’m unclear on what comes next. Certainly, I’ve jiggered the order of a few of the as-yet-unwritten events, but I’ve always known what was going to happen. So, to be clear, I know exactly what has to happen next.

I just don’t want to do it.

Very soon, I have to do something horrific to a character I like. I have to do my dead-level best to break her down to the core, and to do that, I must do something truly abhorrent – something I would never do, something I am realizing I cannot do.

But of course, it’s not me that’s doing it. And for that matter, the character I’m inflicting it on isn’t really suffering for it either. It’s all make-believe with one fictional character being mean to another equally fictional character. I’m just jotting this little lie down on paper.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help much. In some ways, to make the reader care about these characters, the writer has to care just as much. So it sucks when something bad happens to one of them. It sucks even more because, at some level, I’m the one doing it. Remember that thing about fictional characters taking up slots in our monkey-sphere? Yeah… well right now Skippy the Wonder-Monkey is looking at me with accusing eyes. “You’re doing what? To my sister Charlene the Cheery-Chimp?”

So now I’ve got to go do that terrible thing to someone I like, and I don’t want to do it. The scars on that character will be permanent, and if she was real, she would never actually forgive me, not even after removing my internal organs with a rusty spork. But she’s not real, so I’m going to fire up the torture machine and drop her in. I might even have to decapitate her teddy bear first.

But if I ever find out I’m in some kind of Stranger Than Fiction world, I’m really going to lose it.

Writers Are Cruel, so Have Pity

If your reading has progressed past Dr. Suess, you’ve almost certainly had one of those “You Bastard!” moments. That’s when the author hits you with something both surprising and cruel. That sidekick you loved? Oops, he’s dead. That knight in shining armor? It turns out he’s the bad guy. And that character you identify with so closely? Yeah… she’s going into the meat grinder.

While it would be fun to toss it off with the glib observation that we’re a vicious breed, the truth is better. Writers are cruel for a good reason.

By putting characters through the crucible of their misfortune, the reader gets put through it as well. We get the full emotional ride, but we come out the other side with no scars. Well, maybe a few scars. I’m still kind of shaken by some of the deaths at the end of Harry Potter, but I guess that’s part of it too. Voldemort didn’t kill any of my friends and family, and yet I got to taste that sense of terrible loss, and while I prefer a joyful life, I know it is one tempered by grief. Maybe it’s better to have some idea what I’m up against in fiction before I’m facing it for real.

But it’s not enough for a writer to drop in pain and loss by recipe. To work, it’s got to be real. At least, that’s been my experience, and I’ve heard it from others as well. “Writing is easy,” they say, “just pull out the paper and open a vein.”

I think that’s why some of the best advice for young writers is to go out and live some life first. Every heartache, every mistake, every open wound… it’s all grist for the mill. I have suffered. I have seen suffering. And, I confess, I have sometimes caused suffering.

Writing about it makes for poor therapy, since you kind of have to wallow in it at times. Rather, it’s best to have already dealt with it before doing the writing. That way you can keep it close enough to make it real but far enough away to keep it from consuming you. Of course, my life has been far from Schindler’s List or The Mission, but it has had its cathartic moments. Seven years after my father’s death, I’m finally tapping into that well. I don’t know how long it will be before I can write about my sons. Maybe never.

So I think about that when some author pulls the rug out from under me with the demon ripping apart that innocent five-year-old child. I want to hate him for being so cruel, but I also realize that at some level this was real to him. No, it wasn’t actually a demon, and chances are the kid wasn’t actually eaten alive, screaming as he went, but somewhere in that author’s life, whether it was him or someone he knows, there was very likely some tragic death of a child. If he hadn’t had any real emotion to tap into, it wouldn’t have had the power to affect me so much.

So, as much as I call him a bastard, I kind of have to feel sorry for him, because whatever real events inspired that grief on the page, I imagine that living it hurt a hell of a lot more than simply reading it. So, who is more cruel, the author, or the fate that put so much grist in the mill?

And people wonder why so many great writers suffer from depression and alcoholism.