Friday, November 21, 2008


Left hand: a slice from cutting garlic, a red gouge from a splinter of locust, a row of callouses from tightening clamps, mysterious abrasions most likely from rough lumber.

Right hand: two dings on my thumb, one a blood blister of unknown provenance, the other received when the wrench slipped while I was changing thickness planer blades three nights ago. Mystery divot on the knuckle of my middle finger. A small slice from opening a pop-top jar of peanuts, two mostly healed splinter holes.

Boatbuilding and running in cold dry weather are not kind to hands: these things I do in my spare time leave create small damages in their wake.

I'm coming to a point in my work-in-progress where I have to describe some very bad things. Researching them, so I know what to say and how to say it, has taken me into some of the darkest chapters of human history. I'm not boasting; I'm explaining why it frightens me, and why I'm starting to discover that I've been delaying writing this part of the story.

It scares me. I wonder if it will damage me. And if it does, is that enough of a reason not to write?

Or is that all the more reason to write?

I don't like talking about the specifics of things I'm working on until a draft is behind me, so this will have to remain vexingly abstract for now. But I can say this: I'm not afraid of sending my characters into these bad places and therefore going there myself. I'm afraid I won't be able to get them back out.

Then I think about the real people in real history who are now part of my research. Whose pain I am somehow using.

And I think, forget about me, what about them?

And I think: this must be told.


Peter S said...

Looking at very bad things--it's human nature to look, to be horrified and fascinated.

I had a dream last night of walking past a long thorny hedgerow, cresting ten feet or higher. At a break in the hedge was a weathered iron fence, an entry gate to an grand brick mansion. It had been a beautiful house once, now, missing panes and crumbled walls told of neglect, sadness, and something evil and frightful lurking in the damp and ruined corners.

In my dream I tried to walk by, to not look at the house and scare myself, yet I was pulled back. As I woke up in the middle of this dream, I realize that I was pulling myself back. To force my dream body into that house.

We want to scare ourselves. Maybe to feel alive, maybe to be thankful that we are not worse off, living in a terrible situation. We stop at car wrecks, watch documentaries of horrific events in history, and write about them as well.

In your story, push us towards the haunted house. We really want to go in.

S R Wood said...

Thanks Peter. How do we walk the line between salacious or gratuitious *watching* and something more meaningful? And is it bad if we're entertained? No, that can't be right. But I don't think you can compare a Stephen King story -- dark and meaningful though it may be -- to the Holocaust Museum.

Could be an unfair comparison, though. I'm not sure anything can be compared to the Holocaust.

Peter S said...

I was thinking we may look at dark and evil things so we can step away afterward, go home and hide under the covers. We can hold out our arms and say, "Well, at least I'm in one piece."

Maybe we slow at car wrecks so we can reassure ourselves that we are okay. For the same reason, we should study the holocaust to make sure it never happens again.

Eh...I may be building a very long spindly bridge of logic over a turbulent river of bad metaphors.

So okay...

david said...

There's a beautiful passage in Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing in which the priest describes his relentless search for a mistake God has made, some instance in which God got out of character and did something stupid or even evil. For something to have meaning it must have definition, an edge, something to come up against, he argues. Else we tumble, flailing, through creation as chicken wire and paper mache.
Cut flowers are beautiful because they are dying, as I think I observed recently on a long hike crunching through ankle-deep yellow and red leaves.
What do you think has kept me fascinated through years of covering wars and other disasters?

S R Wood said...

Yes, the importance of a comparison, of an edge, of a THAT so we're able to better understand THIS.

But what do we do when there is no explanation? No reason?

Or is there always a reason?

"What can we do against such reckless hate?"

When art holds a mirror to humanity it can't only show the good. I'm not lecturing here, just thinking out loud. Or on the keyboard, as it were.