Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Of Loss And Life

Tonight, we have to go to a memorial service. He was barely more than a kid, not even two years out of high school. Snap. Gone. Forever.

I haven’t been to a funeral since my friends buried their daughter, and I’m probably not alone when I say I don’t particularly like going. And that’s where this gets interesting for me, because I can read and write about death and its effects on individuals and whole communities, day in and day out, but going to a service for someone I know – knew – runs the risk of somehow becoming perverse. I want to keep it compartmentalized in my brain. I don’t want it to be fodder for my writing.

And that’s always a potential problem, but especially now. Where I’m at with the second book in this series is the point where it’s weighing on my brain night and day. I was writing notes in the dark, while lying in bed last night, and since it was dark I didn’t realize the pen had died. No matter. They were the first thing on my mind this morning. It’s all right there, just waiting to get out. And some of it has to wait, because I’m not quite ready for all the pieces that I can clearly see in my mind.

In the past, when I’ve been at this stage on a book, I’ve even gone so far as to sleep in my office. I lack the discipline to stop my brain from playing things out. Characters are speaking and I’m processing all of it. Although I’m not a plotter, and usually start a story with one piece of inspiration, in this case I can see through most of the book. I know where all the major lines are going to end.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t prevented my characters from throwing me the odd curve ball. Just yesterday, Ashlyn put her foot in her mouth twice, and now two of the people she’s closest to are both upset with her. Of course, in one case that’s perfect. In the other case I’m left to wonder how the hell they’re going to work it out. Don’t ask me. I haven’t got a clue, though it should make the next scene I’m going to write a hell of a lot of fun.

I had been banging my head against a wall for a while on this book. John Connolly recently wrote about what he calls The Doubting Stage, reassuring some of us that we’re not alone when we struggle with all the angst of self doubt when working on a book. Maybe if you don't write you just can't understand this, and so many "newbies" are afraid admitting to it will make them look like an amateur. Thank goodness we've got pros like John to reassure us this is normal, 'cos it also seems to be sort of taboo to talk about it. No, you have to compound the doubting stage by struggling with it alone...

The Book Otherwise Known As The Frailty of Flesh* has proven to be the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write. “Oh, it’s a series book, you know the main characters. Shouldn’t it be easier?”

Um… NO. Not in my opinion. Particularly with series books, especially early on, every book should be stronger than the last. Too many authors fall prey to the week (that would be weak - duh!) second offering. In this series, WBW is the intro, and this book has to move deeper. Why should readers bother with this series if they don’t get to know the characters better? There has to be a compelling storyline, but it needs to develop the protagonists. I guess I’d say at the end of WBW I hope people think, “I really like them^, I want to know more” and that at the end of this book people are addicted to them.

In the midst of all the doubt and all the frustration, and wondering if you really wouldn’t be better as a shoe salesperson (despite the fact you can barely distinguish between Nikes and the things they call pumps, except for saying with confidence which ones are more comfortable and which ones you're supposed to wear with a dress) you keep pressing on and reach a point where the book is talking in your head, the scenes are begging to be written and you remember that (politics, criticism, and the cutthroat competition that comes with this business aside) this is why you do this – because you love to write, and when the writing is going well it’s the best feeling in the world.**

But tonight, I’m going to turn it all off to go and say goodbye to someone who died far too young, senselessly, the situation reminding me that part of the reason I write about death is to serve as a reminder that life is precious, sacred, and that taking that from someone is the worst sin.

I just wish more people understood that their cruelty and pettiness and need to tear others down in order to feel better about themselves often isn’t any different than physically killing another person. Badgering a person to the point where they’re unable to really live, remaining as a shell, having given up on their dreams… It doesn’t take someone special to do that to another human being. It takes someone pathetic.

And today, Ken Bruen writes of loss in a way that cuts to the core. That’s the post you should really read.

*The boss doesn’t like the title, so I’m contemplating alternatives…

**Next to how I feel about Evil Kev, of course.

^ Or, more appropriately, "I really like spending time with them, they're interesting." Others will agree with Brian that not everyone is likeable.


Chris said...

Wait, doubting only gets ONE stage?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, it's a long stage. See, it comes in just after you get the idea that you think is amazing. Then you push past it, get things going and think it's back, but there's a relapse, 15-20,000 words into the book and eventually you work past that and think you're done, but Doubt really just went to get a soda, stopped to pet the cats (and when you have so many, that takes a while) and flipped channels on the tele to see if there's a useful distraction there to remind you of, and then comes back and says,"Did you miss me?"

It's one long doubting stage, interrupted by bursts of optimism, delusion or desperate hope that you might actually be working on something really good. I pretty much figure anyone who says otherwise doesn't really put their heart into their work. There's a lot of emotion in this book for me, and it's kicking my ass.

Chris said...

Your comment, all jokes aside, pretty much sums it up for me. And am I nuts, or does "Doubt Gets a Soda" sound like one hell of a title for your new WIP?

On a more serious note, I find it interesting that you find it difficult to deal with real loss and sorrow, writing what you do, because I have the same issue. Your sentiment of not wanting it to be fodder for your writing is both touching and right on. In fact, I find I read nowhere near the amount of true crime that I did when I was younger; I no longer have the stomach for it. Something just doesn't sit right with me when I enjoy a story so intimately entwined with someone else's suffering...

JamesO said...

"Badgering a person to the point where they’re unable to really live, remaining as a shell, having given up on their dreams… It doesn’t take someone special to do that to another human being. It takes someone pathetic."

Truly spoken, Sandra. I remember this from being bullied at school. Then watching another boy driven to tears by bullying and realising that one of the bullies was me. I hope that's the point where I started to be a bit more open minded and accepting of others.

As to the self-doubt, well it's always there, watching, waiting, sipping from that soda bottle, looking for the moment when you're most vulnerable so that it can sidle up, look over your shoulder at the screen and snigger quietly to itself. Like the bullied, you can either give in and give up, or square your shoulders, ignore it and get on with pursuing your dream.

Brian said...

You had me worried. You were laying low and I was hoping everything was all right. I was going to send you an email tomorrow morning if you didn't pop your head up.

I've been to a lot of funerals over the years from a brother to grand-parents to a close friend on out to the peripherals and they never get easier. I don't mind going to the funeral but I can't ever approach the body during a viewing. It unnerves me. I saw my brother and my grand father laying there and it was the exact moment that I knew that the "soul" or something existed because what was laying there wasn't the person that I knew. Something essential was missing.

I also have a tendency to withdraw into my mind at a funeral/viewing. Often times I won't react or cry. But it makes me wonder about why I get so broken up when certain fictional characters die. I cry throughout the entire episode where Crocetti dies in Homicide, when Mick dies in Rocky, when Ricky gets killed in Boyz n the Hood. A few years ago Jonathan Lethem wrote an article in which he said something to the effect that men bottle their emotions up and that they then look for reasons to cry. Thus the emotional outpourings at winning sports teams or when Michael Corleone gets gunned down. His examples weren't the best (perhaps because they were personal) but I think I agree with his point. So I wonder then if I'm shedding the tears that should have been shed before and whose life I'm mourning.

"I was writing notes in the dark, while lying in bed last night, and since it was dark I didn’t realize the pen had died."

Congratulations you just wrote a brilliant line. Its pure poetry straight out of a Paul Westerberg lyric. This line makes me want to cry.

"“I really like them, I want to know more” and that at the end of this book people are addicted to them."

Actually for me its a bit different because its not a matter of liking all the characters just that I find them interesting. For example I really can't stand Craig but I want to know more about him.

Ash put her foot in her mouth? No, I'm shocked and refuse to believe it :)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Chris, you've nailed why I have a hard time with true crime. I have to take it in doses. As for the current situation, there's a numbness that sets in, which we've been feeling since we got the news last week. I can count on my fingers the number of people in our village who've been in my home - even on my property with my permission - and this person is one of them. I'm actually a bit concerned that anyone who doesn't know me (or the timeline for writing a book) might think that I did draw off of this because of what I'm writing right now. Surreal when life imitates art, and in this case not at all welcome.

James, very true. We do often inflict the same violence we experience. There was a kid on my bus who used to bug me, so I finally got the nerve to bug him back. He pulled a knife on me.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Brian, perhaps I should have said, "I like spending time with them"?

First, I think it's safer for us to grieve through fiction. It's exactly why I get so pissy about people who say crime fiction can't be serious or touch on serious issues. For crying out loud, is there much in life that's more serious than murder? (Particularly in our comfortable "wealthy" nations? We don't face war in our day to day, worry about driving over bombs...)

I'm with you, I can feel it very deeply with fictional characters. I think it represents so much more than just the character, though. Maybe it's because you cry and then tell yourself you're being silly so you don't have to really face what it is to lose someone. You just lock away the grief. I don't know. I go through this all the time.

Now, as for your comments about Ash and Craig... That's interesting. I have a feeling if you didn't like Craig in WBW you're going to loathe him in this one. Funny thing is, I really feel for the guy, although he is being a bit of a jerk (a bit?). But, well, all I can really say is that all three of them suffer. As for who gets the worst of it... Yeah, you're going to hate me. I'll send you a copy with a box of Kleenex.

I had the flu last week. Very bad.

Oh, and Chris? There actually is a title in consideration that has the word doubt in it. But not Doubt Goes For A Soda. Hell, now I have Might as well go for a soda running through my head...

pattinase (abbott) said...

The doubting stage is what makes you write it again and better. Or at least that's what I tell myself.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I can't think that way - I'd never finish a book.

Eileen said...

Sorry to hear about the loss of someone so young.

I think "doubting stage" is like when dentists say "this might pinch" when what they really mean is that this is going to hurt so bad your eyes will feel like they are going to explode. It is doubt- but it is such a black hole of doubt.

Daniel Hatadi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Hatadi said...

I hope this isn't poor form considering the start of this post, but you really need to get a glow-in-the-dark pen!

That's me all over, always honing in on the truly important detail ...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh Eileen, as someone who suffered when the drugs wore off partway through having their wisdom teeth removed, that comparison really hits home.

I still remember the dentist: "You know, when you pull back that means you can feel it."

Daniel, you're so right! That's what I need. Everyone should send pens with lights in them. Or send me a nightlight, I guess.