"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Saturday, December 15, 2012

State of Mind: Newtown, CT and the Power of Fiction

There's a redhot ball of grief in the center of my chest right now, grown prickles overnight, an absolute inability to voice the grief I am feeling over every new detail coming out of Newtown, Connecticut and all those families facing life without all those incredible people, adults they knew and loved, children who will never be who they could be.  My Facebook feed yesterday was full of parents wanting to pull their children out of whatever school they may be in, hug them, and never let them go.  My niece is only two, not old enough for school, home today with her mom, but the same urge still applies.  This morning, I looked at the headlines and absolutely could not force myself to click on the articles.

There are many other discussions filling my Twitter and my Facebook right now, most wanting real, solid, productive conversations about gun control, the desire to talk about the culture that fuels these killers, ignores their mental health because there are no programs to help them, and more.  But this afternoon, all I can think about is how I spent the last four months talking with my literature students about a genre of literature that deals with this very thing.  How crime literature is the literature of social order, how it responds to our greatest fears as a society, and how we have raised violence to the level of entertainment, rather than the unacceptable action it actually is.

We fear violence against children.  It is one of our greatest societal fears.  Columbine was a defining moment of my world in 1999, Virginia Tech as well.  Schools are supposed to be safe places.  Children are supposed to be safe.  My students and I saw it in Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, in William Kent Krueger's Iron Lake.  Yesterday morning, I saw an article about the stolen babies in Spain and thought that sounded like the basis for Ken Bruen or Benjamin Black's new novel, this link between real life and fiction and the ways that life influences fiction, makes us talk about things that we wouldn't necessarily talk about any other way.  That article seems so distant now.  But it still fits into this larger societal fear of violence against children, the forcible separation of parents from children.  I don't know what to feel, how to feel about the role I've played as an educator in the glorification of this kind of violence.  I teach this literature, after all.  Yesterday, I was working on fleshing out my Irish Noir class that I hope to teach someday (because I have ideas and a brand new binder) and once news of Newtown trickled in, I had to put it away.  I had to go do something, read something, watch something that reminded me of the best parts of being human.

But I am a writer, not only a teacher, and the semester is over.  And this morning, I'm trying to deal with this grief that does not belong to me in the same way I tried to deal with 9/11, all those years ago, in my first apartment in Spokane, days before I began my MFA experience.  My memories of 9/11 are largely sightless, full of September heat on my skin, the voice of Tom Brokaw over the radio in my ear.  I had just moved into my apartment two days before and I had not had cable installed yet, so the images in my head of 9/11 were a product of my imagination and what other people were telling me, via radio, what was going on.  At the time, I was working on my novel, the story of four sisters set during the Irish Great Famine, and in those first days after 9/11, I pounded out so many pages in Brighid's chapter, pouring all my grief and fear and horror into what this sensitive healer was feeling about watching her family and community rot during those days of Black '47.  Today, this morning, I wish I could work on my dissertation, bask in the joy and delight of Galway and the goodness of that city, but for all the healing powers of nonfiction, today I need the healing powers of fiction.  Fiction is how we deal, how we heal, how we operate in a world that we can understand.  It's how we can imagine the grief of those parents, what those children would have heard in those hallways, the color of those hallways, and ask ourselves where do we go from here?  What do we do? And fiction allows us to actually answer those questions, form the path forward ourselves, one brick at a time, one sentence at a time.  By the time we're finished, we have something that might allow us to create that path in this world under our feet.  Fiction is the vehicle that allows us--those of us to whom this story does not belong--to find healing, through imagination, to find the restoration of the social order that the crime has ripped apart.  Whose stories aren't being told?  Whose stories of Columbine do we not tell anymore?  Whose stories of Virginia Tech?  Who has stories we aren't listening to?  And I was reminded that dear friends of our family are burying her mother today, how the most healing part of losing my grandfather six years ago was all the stories in the air.

I went looking for quotes, because my friend Matt Bell posted a quote this morning from the late poet Jack Gilbert:  "If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation. We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil."  At what point can and should we not feel guilty about delight?  About joy?  Like the aftermath of 9/11, when we wondered when it would be appropriate to laugh again?  And the inimitable Joan Didion—“we tell ourselves stories in order to live”—and this was the moment I needed.  We tell ourselves stories in order to live.  Not just survive, not just endure, but to live.  We need stories to move us from one place to another, even if that place is the internal movement of grief.  We need to tell stories to make order out of the disorder, find light in the darkness.  Sometimes those stories are stories that actually happened, the nonfiction that my writerly self so often gravitates towards, trying to make meaning out of what has happened.  But there are times when nonfiction is not the right vehicle, not the right answer to the questions in my head, that I need to create characters and storylines that give voice to whatever it is that I am feeling, because what is inside me needs to find an outlet in some way. 

Grace Paley writes, “You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write. It’s not so much a matter of getting distance as simply a translation. I felt a lot of pressure writing some of those stories about women. Writers are lucky because when they’re angry, the anger—by habit almost—I wouldn’t say transcends but becomes an acute pressure to write, to tell. Some guy, he’s angry, he wants to take a poke at someone—or he kicks a can, or sets fire to the house, or hits his wife, or the wife smacks the kid. Then again, it’s not always violent. Some people go out and run for three hours. Some people go shopping. The pressure from anger is an energy that can be violent or useful or useless. Also the pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice. Why not?”  

There is a lot of pressure inside me this morning, with no place for it to go, and when I write fiction, I write it best under pressure, when I can give this pressure to someone else, a fictional someone else who can do something productive with those emotions in a way that I cannot. The pressure inside me right now, the fear and the anger and the guilt and the injustice and the slivers of hope and joy and delight and laughter, they are important and I need to put them to the page to work through the rips in social order, the incredible societal fears that Newtown now—most recently—represents.  Fiction can do this in a way that no other medium can, in a way that real life cannot.  Nonfiction has its place and in many instances is exactly the right way to work through things that don't make sense.  But fiction has its place too.  Fiction is incredibly powerful, incredibly real, incredibly important, in both the reading and the writing.  We should never take it for granted, because we tell ourselves stories in order to live.


  1. wow..so well said during this impossible to digest time. Concerning writing: I do not think of myself as a writer....I am a reader...but I do write for my mental health and maybe that is what we ALL need to do at this time. Write what we are feeling, put the pencil to work, keep these pages and refer to the words when the grief has lessened.

  2. Good blog! I never really thought of fiction as bringing a different kind of healing as nonfiction (or in my case, poetry, which for me is largely nonfiction). This also makes me think about how on some level, we always write what we know, we're always building a fictional construct to some degree, because none of us are objective observers - ever. Anyway, I know this wasn't your point, but you got me thinking about these things.

    Also, now dating someone Asian, I find it interesting to hear about what he and others in his culture sometimes experience as children. Believe you me, it is not pretty, but interestingly enough, there is a cultural perspective about it that is completely different from ours - for better and worse. There is much we don't hear about, and I think sometimes, it is darn near impossible to understand it because we are looking through an American lens. Imagine being OK with your child enduring abuse - imagine your child being OK with enduring abuse - because it feeds the whole family? Things like this, we perhaps only truly do have a shot at understanding via fiction.