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 http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://magicalwords.net http://www.DavidBCoe.com