As a writer, I have, on occasion, been accused of pulling my punches.
Not often, but that criticism has been levied once or twice in feedback on a WIP. And like most writers, I’ve fallen into the hateful trap of obsessing over negative details (valid or not), rather than seeing what actually works in a manuscript. Some might call this counterproductive. Usually they’d be right, but paying careful attention to critiques that stick in my craw has helped me improve my work. And grow a thicker skin.
One time, though, this fixation led to a change in me, not in the manuscript. I was going through final edits of my novelette, FINIS.. In it, a character considers drowning herself. I knew in my gut the end of her arc was the right one. I wasn’t trying to be Kate Chopin or Shakespeare; nor was I writing realistic fiction. FINIS. is magic realism, a fantastical type of literary fiction. I could make anything happen to this character that I wanted, John Updike and the laws of nature be damned.
“You want nice things to happen to your characters,” one workshop partner insisted, her nose crinkling just slightly above her smile. “You love tidy endings.”
I didn’t roll my eyes.
But while finishing the edits for FINIS., I did wonder if I had a problem.
That week, I got a call from a friend I’d gone to college with. Another of our contemporaries, Heather, whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, had died. She’d drowned. Tethered to a paddleboard in a calm-looking but swiftly moving river, snagged underwater by some fallen tree branches, her board got lodged, and she got held under. Her ten-year-old daughter screamed and screamed for help, but when it arrived, Heather was dead.
Every part of this, from the unnecessary loss of my friend’s life to the trauma of her young daughter’s watching it happen, is horrifying. There’s no getting around that, and no amount of condolences, though appreciated, will ever change a single detail.
In my grief, I put my story away. I couldn’t even look at it. But deadlines don’t care about the dead, and eventually I had to bring it back up and smooth out those final line edits.
I considered changing the story, but I knew that wouldn’t be right for the character. I fixed a comma splice and changed a few more words around. I tweaked a metaphor and added a line of wry dialogue. In places, I’m told, FINIS. is funny, but I couldn’t feel it anymore. I couldn’t take pleasure in the craft of writing. All I could hear was Heather’s daughter crying for help, and all I could think about was that the child’s anguished shriek was the last thing her mother ever heard.
I’m told that drowning is a peaceful way to go. The senses dull, everything fades into a heavy quiet, a liquid thrumming. Like going to sleep on a boat, maybe like going to sleep in the womb. I don’t know, but the idea that there is peace, that one goes back to the beginning of things, was strangely comforting.
I added that detail to the story. That was the extent to which I changed my manuscript as a result of Heather’s death.
But the more I worked on those edits, the more I let the story wash over me, the more I submerged myself in it––the more my grief subsided, like ripples on a lake growing wider, gentler until indistinguishable from the lake itself. No longer a disturbance, but a feature of the world. I will never lose this grief. I don’t have to. It simply is.
Tim O’Brien, in The Things They Carried, speaks of writing as unintentional therapy. I don’t think that’s what was happening to me, not really, not in the way writing about the Vietnam War arguably staved off his PTSD. But in the chapter “The Lives of the Dead,” he writes about a nine-year-old girl named Linda, whom his character Timmy loved and lost to brain cancer in elementary school. Later, in his adult life, he dreams her back into existence. She speaks of the afterlife as if being dead were like being a book on a shelf that no one is reading at the moment. It’s not some agony or paradise, it just is. And he realizes that writing a book about a character who is himself is like trying to save his own young life “with a story.”
I don’t know if something could have saved my friend’s life. I don’t know whether it’s better or worse to think that her accident could have been prevented. I look at my own ten-year-old daughter, on the cusp of middle school, and worry preemptively about the things she’s going to deal with in her world, and I hope that the worst tragedy she ever encounters is the death of our ancient cat. We cannot save everyone, after all.
But we try. We are writers and we destroy lives and worlds and ideologies. And sometimes, we don’t.
And sometimes, that choice is the right one.
Angélique Jamail’s poetry and essays have appeared in over two dozen anthologies and journals, including Time-Slice (2005), Improbable Worlds (2011), Pluck Magazine (2011), and The Milk of Female Kindness – An Anthology of Honest Motherhood (2013). Her work was selected as a Finalist for the New Letters Prize in Poetry in 2011. Her magic realism novella Finis. (2014) has been praised by fiction writer Ari Marmell as having “some of the most real people I’ve encountered via text in a long time,” and by poet Marie Marshall as “a witty tale of conformity, prejudice, and transformation, in a world that is disturbing as much for its familiarity as for its strangeness.” She teaches Creative Writing and English at The Kinkaid School in Houston. Find her online at her blog Sappho’s Torque (www.SapphosTorque.com).