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.


  1. I remember seeing that man jumping out the window of the tower and it was one of the most sickening things I've ever seen. Not in the sense that it was gross or disgusting, but just in the sense of how overpowering fear can be. How afraid must that man have been to choose to do something like that?

  2. I was very pregnant on my way to a Dr.'s apt. when on 9-11-2001. It's hard to forget what happened that day, then I remember that my son, born only a month after the event, has no memory of it at all.

  3. Like Angela, I too was very pregnant on 9-11 and watched the second tower fall from my office window on the East side of Manhattan. A day later the baby turned from breech to normal (I blamed it on the 2 mile walk home that day because no buses were running) and a month later he was born with a terrible heart defect we had no idea he had.

    Thankfully, he is okay now.

    But yeah--like you said--in the blink of an eye, your world can turn upside down.

  4. I was at work when the first tower was hit and when I got home, my partner and I watched in sickened shock as the second plane hit. I am not an American, but I don't think any decent human being could not have been appalled at what happened on 9-11.

  5. Life can be so tragic. I live not far from Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant and on 9/11 and after the students at our school were frightened. For months after that day any time a plane flew over the athletic fields during PE class the kids would stop and watch it. Events can have long lasting results.

  6. You've made a very sobering point; our society is defined by what we choose to "entertain" ourselves by. I think your challenge to writers is valid and thought-provoking. Even if you don't change the face of fiction, you've made your readers take a moment to think it through.

  7. Matt, thanks for putting it into words like that. Exactly.

    Angela, that must have been a hard time to be about to bring a life into the world, but they really are our hope for the future, aren't they?

    Lydia, thank you for sharing your story. That is a huge pendulum swing from bad to better to scary. I'm so glad he's okay.

    Ellie, thank you so much for your words. That means a lot to me.

    Susan, that's so horrible! I hadn't even thought about how traumatized the children must have been. I mostly hoped they wouldn't notice or understand it yet. I hardly understand it myself.

    Wren, thanks. That's what I aim for. :)

    Christy, I appreciate you stopping by! I hope you're healing up nicely from your "broken resolutions."

    Thanks for letting me unload these thoughts, and for reading them. May this week be a heck of a lot better than last week. :)


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