“Hudson Highlands” by Daniel Case is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
A few weeks shy of my sixteenth birthday, I watched someone fall off a cliff. He plummeted several hundred feet to his death. The header image above shows the Hudson Highlands near Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY, the town where I was raised. You’ll notice the beauty of it. Images like these help promote the Hudson Valley as a wonderful place to visit or live.
For me, though, the part of this image that I always focus on (not quite visible here thanks to the blog post title I slapped on top if it) is the sheer face of the cliffs since it was from one such face that I watched the man fall.
I might say that tragedy planted the seeds for my future as a writer. I’m sure that segue sounds crude given the gravity of what I experienced (watching someone die) and the conclusion I drew from it (that I became a writer). And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
But it is a sad fact that much of what drives great literary writing is the intensity of emotion that comes from truly horrific events.
Not everyone in life has experienced anything quite that tragic though I would argue that any reader of this post probably knows someone who has suffered greatly in some capacity even if the reader doesn’t know it. Life is funny. We all have to put on a face for society–become shiny, happy people in the words of Michael Stipe–to mask our sentiments about the terrible things we have experienced.
But the underlying memories of horrific events never disappear. We visit those memories in solitary moments: once we have left the party and are walking home alone or have gone to bed but can’t quite sleep. We find ourselves wandering through our homes, literally or figuratively, without even bothering to turn the lights on.
We never forget the rooms where bad memories are kept, where the ordeals we have suffered can be revisited. We never forget those rooms and even if we have never let anyone in to see, we know where the key is to enter. In fact, it dangles weightily from a chain around our necks the way the ancient mariner once had to wear the albatross. Those memories cause us pain but also offer a strange attraction that keeps us coming back again and again.
Horrific Events and Literary Writing
A few months–maybe not even that long–after I watched the man fall from the cliff, I purchased one of those old-fashioned composition notebooks, the ones whose cover was splashed with a black and white Jackson Pollock-esque design. On the inside cover, I wrote “Between A Laugh and a Tear“, the name of a song from John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow album. Putting my first words on paper was like standing face to face with life and saying, I see you and we are going to tangle.
Maybe I hadn’t paid that much attention to life in general until that particular moment. Sure, I had the same kind of angst as any high school student–fear I wouldn’t be accepted by my peers, concern that a crush would not be requited, frustration that I was not understood.
But watching that man fall off a cliff?
Oh no, THAT was different. That wasn’t about being young or being old. That was, simply, real.
I am here, life hissed, slithering up as some hitherto unseen shadow that, until a moment ago, had simply been part of a dark corner. “I took that man away and god knows what else I will do.”
A few hours after the man fell and I found out at the local police station that he had indeed died, a flood of questions assaulted my consciousness, so like that which must run through anyone’s head following a tragedy.
- Why did this happen?
- What could I have done?
- Why not me?
- How could something like this have happened on such a nice day?
We cannot defeat life or slap it down when it’s being monstrous. People deal with life in many ways–some constructive, some not, some healthy, some unhealthy.
And some people write. At least for a short time, as writers sit in front of computers or clutch vicious pens in their hands, it is not the human marked by life, but life marked by the storyteller.
My novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, recounts the story of a young Border Patrol agent whose life was devastated as a boy when his brother was killed in a shootout on the family ranch between drug mules and Border Patrol agents. Only in returning to the border and becoming a line agent himself more than 15 years later is he able to confront the demons of his past and attempt to unshackle himself from mental and emotional paralysis.
Writers must return to the places they suffered and draw from that wellspring of pain for stories. The landscape may not be physical as it is for Billy Maddox though in fact, even for Billy, the Sonoran Desert of southwestern Arizona only represents the place he needs to go–where painful memories live in his mind–to begin the healing process.
Writers must face openly and honestly the trauma of horrific events that have occurred. There can be no hiding, no sugar-coating, no lying. Great stories spring from raw, unfettered, in-your-face honesty. Great stories represent experienced pain. If the pain was never real, the writing will reveal that. The stories will be false. And never, in the end, can they be great.
Here are three ways that horrific events drive great literary writing.
1. They bring us face-to-face with the truth that most of what we see in society is pretending.
We have the Benetton-style life shoved down our throats daily. Everything we see in advertisements, television programming, and in pleasant exchanges with colleagues, strangers and many acquaintances validates or augments accepted social conventions. It stirs ongoing desires within us to aspire to beauty and perfection. Conversation runs no deeper than comments about the weather, a breaking news report or the latest on the home team.
In reality, though, most of us are just happy enough getting out of bed in the morning and getting to work on time. We have family concerns, health concerns. We are terrified that we may have forgotten an important deadline because we were distracted at just the wrong moment.
And then there are the horrific events that frighten us, that we know can come out of nowhere at any moment. Will we get in an automobile accident? Will a sudden, unexpected letter arrive from the IRS claiming we owe tens of thousand of dollars in unpaid taxes? Will a loved one pass away?
We are all, at heart, less interested in the weather or the latest beauty product than we are in avoiding all the terrible things that can happen during the course of our days.
Writers of literary fiction dig into these moments of fear and write stories about what happens to people when the shit actually does hit the fan. Writers of literary fiction also know the above-mentioned social conventions represent nothing more than putting a shiny, happy face on a world terrified of devastation.
2. They remind us that intense pain, even to the point of death, is always just a breath away under the right circumstances and that we are both terrified and fascinated with this knowledge.
As a segue from point one, we are terrified by the possibility that tragedy could befall us any moment. Five minutes before he died, the man I was with on the side of Storm King Mountain had no idea the darkness was gathering around him. The victims of the Washington, DC sniper didn’t know their worlds were about to be shut down two minutes before they were shot.
And yet, while we are terrified, we are also mesmerized because we have no way to explain or even conceive of that level of absurdity. Curiosity draws us toward knowledge we do not possess, and no knowledge is quite as attractive or as tinged with fear as life’s absurdities or unexplainable tragedies. Joseph Conrad penned the term “fascination with the abomination” to describe the captivation among people facing something monstrous or horrific.
Extreme fear and extreme pain tend to be the two peaks that drive us toward terror and fascination. Writers of literary stories capture this attraction by telling stories that stir extreme feelings.
3. They force us to realize that we don’t want to be alone in such a world, and that a book is where writers and readers agree about it.
Humankind is capable of such cruelty. The history of war and genocide are all we need to accept this basic fact.
And yet our race is also so absolutely vulnerable. We seek infant-like comfort from each other’s presence as a consequence of the horrific events that have passed and those which are yet to come.
Writers and readers share an unspoken bond. Stories represent all we can make of a hard life. Life is often identified as the context in which people live. But, when asked point blank, we are also likely to admit life can seem like an active, savage player with its own nefarious merit.
As C.S. Lewis explained in Shadowlands: We read to know we are not alone. And the writer, in developing a story, essentially is explaining that it is okay to come gather, that here in a story, at least, one is safe.
Literary Writing: Capturing Life In A Bottle, If Just For One Story
Literary writing springs, then, from these three truths, which are driven to our consciousness by horrific events more than anything else. Literary writing is about one’s internal world–about the world in which one emotionally experiences devastation and trauma and selects a response.
It is a medium that can never be replicated by something like cinema. As K.M. Weiland has already written (see Point 3 in this post), the internal monologue that is so crucial in writing can never be replicated on celluloid.
Madame Bovary is a self-willed and unconventional woman who must choose a response upon finding herself in an unhappy marriage (Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert). Leopold Bloom struggles to find a way forward with his life following the devastating loss of his son Rudy (Ulysses by James Joyce). Wade Whitehouse is a down-and-out odd jobber struggling to build a life in the dead-end town where he was born following a hard upbringing by his father (Affliction by Russell Banks).
Some readers accuse literary fiction of being tedious, slow and gloomy. It’s not intended to be as most within the literary community would agree. For God’s sake, on page one of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan start arguing about the rent. Hello, conflict!
But literary writing is not simply intended to entertain, either. Tragedy and disappointment are the wellspring of great stories that push characters to respond. Such writing is optimistic because the characters DO choose. They DO attempt to improve their situations despite hardship.
Such writing seeks to rip down the facade of a world that constantly tries to play nice. Such writing shines a flashlight in at us and say, hey, it’s okay, someone’s here now and here’s my hand.
Stories bring writers and readers together in a safe place when all is beset by pain. Literary writing does it better than any genre possibly could. In fact, that is one of literary writing’s deliberate characteristics.
The sad news for me is that when I watched that man slip over the cliff, as I heard his final panting breaths as he struggled with the realization that he was going over, and as I watched his hands grasp claw-like for some purchase where there was none, and his boots dance on the loose, rolling stones for an anchor, no one was there to experience it with me.
I WAS alone.
And for that reason, I learned what literary writing accomplishes.
Comment: Have you ever experienced a horrific event that you needed to share after the fact either by writing a story about it or by reading about someone else (in fiction or non-fiction) who had a similar experience? Feel free to leave a comment below.
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