Sunday, January 9, 2011
Huge Pendulum Swings
Life is volatile and unpredictable. One day, you're laughing cheerfully with your family in your living room, and the same night you could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and BAM--life changes forever.
We write about it in fiction all the time: Fred is going along minding his own business at the bus stop when somebody knocks him over with a silver attache case that, it turns out, is filled with a million dollars in counterfeit cash. Fred doesn't have time to process what he's clutching to his chest, as he lies on the sidewalk, before an entire squad of unmarked police cars rolls up, guns at the ready. Fred is going to jail.
It's exciting and it's dramatic, but it also happens in real life all the time. Maybe not cool twists with spies and counterfeit money, but the pendulum certainly does swing. One minute, you're enjoying a political rally with your kids, teaching 'em all about this great country we live in and the ways citizens can be involved--and then the unthinkable happens. A gunman opens fire, not just on one unfortunate target, but on the entire assembly of civilians, politicians, and service people. Your mother is struck down. Or your son. Or your daughter. Life for you will never be the same.
Last year, my aunt lost a toddler to a brain tumor... all of a sudden. He was angelic and playful and filled with the potential of youth, and then he got sick and, less than two weeks later, he passed away.
Occasionally when I'm reading, I'll come across a character's back story that feels contrived to me. Another teenager lost her parents in a car accident, or somebody's little brother was shot in a gang drive-by. But then real life things happen that give me back my perspective. These things are present in literature because they are present in real life. Art imitates life. Tragically. But realistically.
The truly sad thing is that I think as a society, we sometimes care more about the fictional characters than we do about the real ones. The far-away stories that don't touch our lives are easy to ignore, or forget, or push to the backs of our minds. The books we read and the movies we watch, however, get played over and over again in our imaginations, forcing us to face the reality--the sick twisted evil that we know lurks in our own world. Through fictional characters, we process what we don't even want to think about. That's what makes books like Speak or The Hunger Games so powerful and so important to us as a society. But if we aren't mindful, it is all too easy to forget that we wept with Katniss when she lost Rue and others in her world, and to brush off real-life murder and rape with an, "eh, it happens" attitude.
I can never forget how, when the towers were hit on 9-11, I watched the second plane hit the second tower. I watched it go down. And then I heard the eye-witness accounts from people who were there on the ground. They weren't seeing it on a screen. They were seeing it framed by nothing but smoke and blue skies, and yet they said, "It was just like a movie. It was like it wasn't real."
I was studying Communications at a university at the time, and we had to watch that footage over again to process how the media handled it, and how the people responded to it. I remember two things most of all:
1) A man jumped out of a window near the top of the building as it crumbled. He jumped out! And I cried.
and 2) The idea that we could witness a real life tragedy and think, "It's just like a movie" really unsettled me.
We cry in movies, but in real life, we detach ourselves from the reality of it? I guess this is just human nature. I guess it doesn't really mean anything devious about us as a society. But it's a sad thing, I think, that we process our real world through the fiction that defines us.
It means your job as a writer is that much more important. You've got to make sure your writing keeps us locked into the sensitivity and compassion inherent in each of us--that it doesn't desensitize readers to atrocities. That it shows how one bullet, one disease, and one clenched fist brings down a multitude of hopes.
Or maybe you don't. But it's something to think about.