Tragedy and the Writer


It’s been quite a week here in our little town.  We’ve been dealing with the aftermath of events great and terrible, events that have nothing at all to do with writing, but have had a profound impact on me as a writer.  What follows is entirely true, save for the names.

Tragedy Averted:  Wednesday was a warm, stormy day here in Sewanee.  Temperatures in the sixties, thunderstorms, powerful winds.  I had just gotten my old daugther from school and was driving with her into town.  Taking the main road in, we were stopped by firemen and EMTs who were working on a vehicle, several cars in front of us.  We turned around, found another way into town, but on the way back out saw that a car had been hit by a fallen tree.  Turns out the driver, Sarah, was a friend of ours.  The tree, which was at least a foot and a half in diameter, had fallen on her Prius as she drove through the storm, landing so hard on the car’s hood that it crushed the engine block!  Had she been going, say, two miles per hour faster, had the car been just a yard farther along, it would have landed on her windshield or roof, and she would be dead.  As it is, she’s fine — just a few bruises.

Tragedy Prolonged:  Back in September, a woman here in town — Terri — had a birthday.  It might have been her sixtieth; Nancy and I have always liked Terri and her husband, but we’ve never been very close to them, so I don’t know for certain.  Around that time, Terri noticed that she was more out of breath than she should have been after taking walks or doing small chores around the house.  She went to her doctor and was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, the same form of cancer, coincidentally, that killed my mother many years ago.  She tried to continue working, she may even have looked into alternative treatments.  But the cancer progressed too quickly, too aggressively.  Her decline has been steady.  On Friday, a mutual friend came to my signing visibly upset.  She said that Terri was dying, that her entire family had come back home to be with her, that the time she had left could be measured in days rather than weeks.  As I write this, we’ve still heard nothing more.  We know that word of death will come soon, and we know as well that there’s nothing we can do but wait.

Tragedy Without Warning:  John had lived in Sewanee even longer than we had.  He and his wife were established members of the community when we moved here in 1992, and they have continued to be fixtures here.  Their three children, the youngest of whom is a senior in high school this year, are all great kids:  bright, funny, smart, incredibly talented.  John was an editor; his wife a talented artist.  They had always lived paycheck to paycheck, but they were fine with that.  They were as deeply in love as any middle-aged couple I’ve ever seen.  John was as kind and generous and decent a man as you could ever want to meet.  He was my friend.  Though we rarely saw each other socially, we always stopped to talk when we saw each other in town or at some school function.  We talked about family, about politics, about writing and editing.  The very first book I ever signed as a professional writer was a book that John’s wife bought for him and brought to my house for me to sign.  A birthday present, I think.  On Saturday morning we learned that John had died suddenly the day before.  As of yet no one knows why, although those who understand such things suspect a brain aneurysm.  His wife got home from work Friday afternoon and found him at his desk.  He was fifty-four years old.

This is life, I know.  Shit like this happens all the time.  People get sick, people die . . . or they don’t.  They get lucky, sometimes freakishly so.  My emotions in the wake of all this are exactly what you’d expect them to be.  I’m relieved beyond words that Sarah is all right.  Every time I think of John and his beautiful family I start to cry again.  I grieve for Terri and her family.  Those are human responses; that they’re banal makes them no less real.

But here I am writing about them.  And that’s really what this post is supposed to be about, right?  David the person is dealing with all of this just like everyone else in our little town.  But what about David the writer?  I’m writing about this stuff and I feel like I’m exploiting my friends.  I know — I KNOW — that in my work I’ll be drawing on the emotions of this weekend for the rest of my life.  How could I not?  This is what I do.  And yet I feel profoundly guilty about it.  I feel guilty for what I’ve written thus far in this post, although I know that Sarah, Terri, and John would all understand.

I have another friend — a writer and artist — who says that everything is grist for the mill.  Everything we experience affects us on a human level, but it also gives us material.  Not because we’re vultures, picking at the bones of every carcass we find, but because writing is interwoven with our humanity.  We process grief, anger, joy, fear by writing about it, or by considering how we might right about it. 

And so I ponder the choice fate made this past week, sparing Sarah, but taking John.  I think about Terri’s family and am reminded of the vigil my father, my siblings, and I kept for my mother when she was dying of lung cancer.  And I begin to plot, I begin to build characters, I search for the words to describe what I’m feeling, not so that I can put a name to my emotions, but so I can write them.  Eventually, somewhere down the road.  When the rawness of this weekend has passed.

I don’t know what kind of comments/discussion I want to see come out of this post.  I know that I don’t want people telling me that they’re sorry for me.  Compared with what Terri and John’s families are going through, I’m not dealing with anything.  If you care to send kind thoughts their way, please do.  But tell me how you deal with grief or pain or anger or exhilaration, not as a person, but as an artist.  How does emotion inform your creativity?  The other day I referred to creativity as a form of alchemy.  That’s what this ought to be about.  Not the maudlin thoughts and guilt of a grieving writer, but rather the resolution of an artist to take the anguish that comes with loss and turn it into something positive, something moving.

Let’s discuss that.

David B. Coe

14 comments to Tragedy and the Writer

  • Amy

    When I was seventeen, my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly of an aneurysm. I was already writing by then, and looking back at what I wrote, I can see that there was a sudden and marked alteration in the style and tone of my work – it became much darker, much angrier and bleaker in its outlook. Later, once a year or two had passed, that quietened and beccame more thoughtful, a discussion of grief and recovery. If it hadn’t been for my mother dying, I would never have started writing seriously. Working out my feelings inflated my wordcount to such a degree that I became better out of practice.

    Now, I use all the crap that happened back then – my mother’s death, my sister and father’s ensuing illness and depression, my failing grades and eventual change into something new and different – in everything I write, giving it more depth and meaning. Nothing bad had ever really happened to me before then, and that was reflected in my writing – not terrible, but shallow. Now, when I write grief for my characters, you can believe it, instead of it reading as though I’d cobbled it together from every other book I’ve read and bad television soap operas.

    I’m not glad it happened, but my writing has improved immensely as a result.

  • Wendy

    I’ve actually had to think about this as a therapy exercise in “reimaging,” so I feel like I’m really aware of the way I use my emotions as a writer. Here are two examples, neither tragic, but applicable:

    Growing up, my family was a mess. Out of the frustration of being a child in the whirlwind of my parents’ lives grew many characters and stories that kept me reasonably social and sane. Some of them even helped out classmates who, in turn, unburdened their family messes to me. …and this revelation of not being alone, in its turn, informed my ability to write characters with close friendships who could be startled by the same sudden joy of not having to be the strong one all the time.

    On a less general note:
    Last summer, I experienced New York City for the first time. I grew up with Chicago as my backyard. It was the place we met my grandparents for a day if we didn’t have the time to go all the way to their house. My metro area has close to 3 million people. I thought I understood “big city.” I did not. Everything about my New York trip took me so far outside my comfort zone that I spent most of three days nearly sick to my stomach. (My husband, on the other hand, decided it was the greatest mess of a city known to man, and he could quite possibly live there. I told him I would need a laudanum drip if he wanted me to come along.)
    I came home and completely rewrote a scene in which my heroes enter the capitol city with a deeper understanding of how out-of-balance and nervous I wanted Armand to feel, and how awed and exhilarated Justin should feel.
    There were other experiences on this trip that also made their way into my writing just to stop chewing on them mentally. (Thank you extreme population density, Midnight Subway Crazies and Afro-Cuban neighborhood of Brooklyn. You will always have special places in my heart.) Was it my ideal vacation? No. Was it super valuable as a writer? Absolutely. I will always be able to draw on my fish-on-dry-land experiences of this trip. I might even welcome more of them someday…

    Thank you David for sharing your thoughts on using these “why” life experiences as a writer. It’s good to recognize the use of these things, and I don’t think you need to feel guilty about using them. They might help someone else through their grief/anger/frustration at some point.

  • Thanks, Amy and Wendy, for sharing your experiences. We have to draw on the well of emotion within ourselves, because that’s really all we have. And so rationally I know that there is nothing wrong with turning my grief into something productive. I remember doing the same after my parents died and being glad that I could make something positive come out of my pain. This weekend’s events felt different somehow because the tragedies weren’t “mine”, if that makes any sense. But I know that this is the wrong way to look at it.

    Still processing…..

  • Interesting. This post has definitely got me thinking on my own writing and where it might come from, at least the emotional bits. I’ve lost loved ones in the past and know what kinds of jumbled emotions are involved; the sadness over their loss, the confusion, and in some cases a small sense of happiness that they aren’t hurting anymore. All these things are emotions and experiences that do help to shape us, not just as writers and artists, but as people too. It’s in part how we deal with these things, not just those that happen personally to us, but to others around us that we care about that shape us into stronger people. We either succumb to hardship or we take something from it, roll the rock aside from the path we walk and keep going, hopefully wiser from the experience. Sometimes there’s nothing to be learned. Sometimes it’s just an experience to share and keep in our hearts, making the happy times and memories all the more precious. In some small way everyone who have touched our lives continue to live on, albeit secretly, in what we do as individuals. Mannerisms, actions, and indeed even art.

    So I don’t think anyone should feel guilty using the emotions and experiences within their writing or any other art form. I think in some small way it pays homage to those people and nods to the way that those lives have touched us personally and shaped our art and our very lives. In some small way, those people who have touched us profoundly still live in facets of our writing, just as they always will in our hearts. In that small way they will live forever.

    I thought about where one of my scenes came from recently, the grief of losing a loved one, the confusion it left in its wake, the anger. I didn’t cry or really mourn when my Papaw passed. He’d had lung cancer. They’d removed about 2/3 of one of his lungs, but he wasn’t ever quite the same. He was always tired, got sick easy, got weaker had trouble doing pretty much all of the tasks he always loved to do. He ended up getting sicker eventually and was bedridden. I was told recently by my Dad that the cancer ended up coming back and he refused hospitalization, just wanting it to end. When he passed I was definitely sad, but in a way I was happy that he had because of the pain and suffering he had been in. However, I didn’t really grieve like everyone around me was, but some part of me did feel those emotions and they got locked away, filed for another time. So when one of my characters lost her brother those emotions, held back by brave stoicism, came out into the scene. It’s a scene that kind of gives me a sniffle every time I read it, and I wrote it.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Daniel. I appreciate your honesty and the eloquence with which you share your thoughts here. There is that sense when I’ve gotten a scene right — when I’ve hit all the emotional markers I was looking for — that I find particularly satisfying as a writer. And I think you’re right: drawing upon these feelings is a way of honoring the memories of those we have lost, or acknowledging the pain of those whose suffering we’ve shared.

    Again, thanks.

  • David, my third book (under an AKA) was about my family history and what should have happened and didn’t. Writing it was like ripping out my own heart and stomping it into the ground. It was like committing murder and seeing blood on my hands. It was powerful and visceral and so…real. I chose not to think that I was using my experiences to write, but that my experiences were giving life and freedom and power to my words. Our feelings are *ours*, despite where they come from. We owe it to them to use them and to bring something good out of our pain and our anger and our helplessness. If we were artists, we’d slash and burn a canvas with paint and it would stop people in their tracks. As it is, we tell stories. And with our stories we bring healing and life and a moment of happiness to a reader.
    Okay — I’m feeling weak and mushy and I see that in my comment. But that dosen’t make it any less true.

  • Not weak or mushy. Thanks, Faith. I think I want to read that book….

  • I don’t think you should feel guilty. I think it’s part of a writer’s special gift to be able to take those dark moments and use them as fuel to touch a life – to make that spark that resonates in reader’s souls. So many stories I’ve read have helped me to process anger or stress or grief or even joy. You’re not detracting from the emotion by using it for writing, you’re spinning it into something usable and functional- like making coats from wool. I think it’s a fearsome and awesome kind of thing.

    And I want to thank you, David, for posting this because you’ve given me some thoughts to think about my own writing. I don’t think I quite understood it properly until you put it into words.

  • My husband and I went through a similar cancer-related ordeal a year ago. It’s not something I care to go into detail over, but I can really relate to your comments about that little part of you that feels guilty, that can’t help but make note of things. So many times during my family’s horrendous but short span of weeks, I found this little voice telling me to remember the raw emotion I felt and witnessed, and the massive swells and troughs in mood — how in the midst of everything else, my niece insisted we go to Chuck-E-Cheese for my birthday (yes, mine, she figures it’s the best place for anyone to celebrate a birthday). I discovered a lot about myself as well, as that was the first such an experience for me, losing someone so close. I learned I’m one of those people that simply doesn’t know what to say, and takes on the job of distracting others when they need a break from black thoughts, and that I use humour more than I probably should during serious situations.

    As you said, David, eventually I’m sure these experiences will find their way into my writing, when the memories aren’t so close. I felt guilty for noting them then, but those are the details that make a scene stronger, and ground them in reality.

  • Thanks for your contributions to the discussion, Melissa and Hayley. This is a difficult topic, and this is one of those times when I’m glad to hear that others have dealt with these feelings, too — the guilt, the uncertainty, the need to understand how my writing and my humanity are intertwined.

  • David,

    Grief is never banal. Banal means it’s slight and unimportant. Banal means it is meaningless. Grief is never slight, unimportant, or meaningless. Grief is loss and pain and despair. Grief is never banal.

    Don’t let anyone tell you you have no right to grieve for anyone. Or anything. Don’t let anyone tell you it is not appropriate. It is appropriate that you mourn for a loss, for no one but you can say how that loss affects you.

    So don’t let me hear you call grief banal anymore. Not your grief, not the grief of others. Grief has meaning, don’t belittle it again.

  • Thanks for the comment, Alan, and for the passion of your response. I meant “banal” in a slightly different sense: The way I expressed in my post what I was feeling was a bit trite, hackneyed, lacking in originality. That’s what I intended in using the word “banal”, and I meant that I didn’t express my grief well, but that didn’t make my emotions any less real. I certainly didn’t mean that my grief was meaningless. You’re right: emotions of this sort are never meaningless, and I would never claim that they are. Thanks again.

  • It’s taken me a little while to work out how I wanted to respond to this, because lately I’ve been drawing on a source of my own grief for something I’m writing.

    In 1983, my very dear friend JC was on a trip to England when she was killed in a car accident. It wasn’t immediate – a gravel truck dumped its load, burying her car. Every bone in her body was broken, and she was in hospital for a week before her mother was able to get there and agree to pull the plug. I spent a horrible week hoping she’d wake up, knowing she never would, and hating the helplessness of being an ocean away. It’s been over 20 years, but I still cry if I spend more than a few minutes thinking about her. People like to say, “It will hurt less with time.” Which is a load of crap. It never hurts less to have lost someone you love – you just learn how to go on despite the pain.

    As a writer, I can draw on that pain to craft a scene that will resonate with a reader’s feelings. It wasn’t easy. Writing what I have, and keeping my grief so close at hand to do it, has been complicated. But it’s a tribute to my friend that she was in my thoughts while every word hit the paper.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Misty. Maybe that’s the flip side of the whole grieving-as-writer thing. Yes, I use the pain in my art, which helps me work through my emotions. But I also hold on to the memory of that pain; I never let it go, because to lose it would be to lose something that I need as an artist. I still remember writing in my first book about a man who watched his wife waste away. I was drawing on my experience of watching my Dad do just that with my Mom. It hurt like hell to write it, but it also helped. And to this day it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done.