I cried for an old friend today. My daughter asked me about how I proposed to She Who Must Be Obeyed and that meandered back to Johnny, the minister who married us. He died of colon cancer. The tears took me by surprise — again, they always do — and I turned my head and my voice almost broke. I covered up my sorrow as I told my daughter about Johnny. My stomach twisted to think about the loss of this fine man with a young family. Johnny’s presence brought us joy. His untimely, horrible death brought chaos. Johnny wouldn’t approve, but when cancer wrung his life from him, my faith died, too. I found my way back to writing for therapy. Then I cast God aside to become Him. I have more compassion and kindness.
After I dropped my daughter off at school, the headaches and the trapped feeling roared back. I am a small god in a tiny realm. I climbed into my bed to retreat into unconsciousness for a little while. Maybe that’s why there’s so much suffering in the real world. God became bitter and He went back to bed, too.
As deep as the blade went with Johnny’s death, I know I will use this. Everything that happens to you as a writer gets sorted and recycled. That moment where I looked away to cover my tears and my voice cracked just a little? That will show up in one of my books, I’m sure.
Then, tonight at my son’s soccer game, I sat beside Gillian. Our kids hold the same trophies, getting taller together in each year’s team photo. Years ago, on the school playground, she mentioned a grisly moment from her history as a personal support worker. She’d forgotten the anecdote, but I used an aspect of it in a short story, Sidewalkers, that appears in one of my collections, Sex, Death & Mind Control (for fun and profit). I won’t spoil it for you, but maggots are involved. Through fiction I transformed an awful factoid into a larger narrative, the sort of secret we file under “Not Understood” in real life.
Every challenge, met and lost, every story told to me and suffered personally…everything…everything is fodder. I cannibalize my life, my family, my enemies — especially my enemies. Fiction is a mind trick that plays with our human capacity for empathy. Through stories, we experience drama, pain and mistakes without suffering the dreary, fatal consequences. But I write not just in the service of self-expression and the market for fiction. I write to correct reality. Fiction is more neat and clean. Happy endings can happen. I can pick where to stop telling my stories so the good man doesn’t have to die, the happy seeker doesn’t become an atheist and the ugly story about maggots becomes a clever anecdote that serves a purpose. In my realm, I am a conscious god. I have more compassion than the mysterious stranger whose ways no one can know. I rewrite the world so it makes more sense.
The tears can be just as real either way. Tears that rain from Art can keep you up all night, compelled to stay awake and reading. Tears from Life send you to bed with a splitting headache and a bitterness that demands escape into softer dreams.
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