Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tragedy and a Writer's Empathy

Who else out there is like me, and finds it difficult to turn away from what's happening in Japan?

The earthquake. The terrible tsunami. The nuclear crisis. And it's not only that it's riveting, this human dram, but that my writer's brain has turned on, has taken hold of events. I begin to imagine, to plot storylines through the tragedy. I begin to diagnose beginnings, middles, and ends. I begin to navigate conflicts.

I think some people react negatively to this, and think it dispassionate. "You want to write a story about this? What are you, a vulture?" Even some writers, I think, feel this, even about their own reaction, this fascination and watchfulness. I think there's a tendency to think of it as voyeuristic and exploitative, even if only subconsciously.

Yet I don't think this reaction really understands the psychological dynamics at work. Story is the way we think. This, in part, is how we understand the world. We make stories of it. We set beginnings and endings. Heck, we break our lives up into decades, years, months and days to help us do just that. It makes the world more comprehensible, providing patterns by which we can shape and delineate our experience. Memory, really, is simply the stories we repeat to ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously. Disordered minds are often disordered because the stories they tell themselves do not make sense.

And this idea of experience as story, I think, holds even greater strength for writers. We are writers because we are deeply touched by story, and in some way we've come to understand their value, and so we consciously try to shape narratives. This is an act of exploration, of trying to understand the world around us by shaping it into a story (no matter how strange and transformed that story might be).

And tragedies hold some of the deepest and most powerful stories. These are the difficult stories, the wrenching stories. And this is why they call to us, because they beg for understanding, beg for us to try and come to grips with them. Sometimes we need to do just that. The world can be a haunting place, and some exorcisms can only take place with a blessing of words.

This act of connective story, of fascination and recreation, is not dispassionate. It is, at heart, an action of extreme empathy. We might be distant, but we try to make ourselves immediate, we try to find a way inside the story, inside the people, inside the experiences, no matter how terrible, how tragic, how full of despair.

There is a human need to share, to take in experience, and to offer a little of ourselves in return. For when we write we invite others to take this exploration with us, to step into a new world, a new experience. To taste tragedy and joy...

Doesn't everyone feel this? At least a little? An accident occurs at the side of a road. People drive by... and everyone slows down and looks. Traffic jams are created from this simple desire, to look. But are we all ghouls, ready to drink in the misery? Or is it simply this need to understand; what is the story? What was its beginning, and middle, and end? What is this experience? For a fleeting moment we enter that story, and we wonder, we feel, we try to share and experience it.

For most, however, this is a fleeting thing. The car moves past, and as the scene fades into the mirror the empathetic connection is lost.

But a writer? Sometimes those connections are strong. We have seen and felt a fragment of something, and it won't let us go. And we want to get to the bottom of it. We need to understand, to try and grasp the human meaning, to piece the puzzle together, to find and shape and share the experience in its entirety.

And so we write. And so we tell a story.


Matthew MacNish said...

I can't help thinking of that part in Shogun when Toranaga falls into the crevice created by the quake, and Anjin-san somehow saves him. Earthquakes are terrifying. I've been in one.

But I don't think there is anything wrong with feeling like writing a story about this tragedy. Writing fiction is just telling the truth about things that may have never happened, and there is beauty in truth.

L.G.Smith said...

It's interesting that you wrote about this. I had a blog post ready to go on Monday, something I wrote in response to the tragedy in Japan, but it came out too story-like so I didn't put up on the blog. It was about the disconnect of watching tragedy on television and I was afraid it would be misinterpreted.

Steve said...

There was a great deal of web/writer reflections on and around 9/11, and it seemed every literary website had a section proudly displaying the prose from their stable of writers.

It was awkward reading then, and it proves embarrassing now; lots of self-display and gibbering. Contrast it with the non-fiction reporting of events and the wars that followed and it's inconsequential.

How tragedy stacks up in fiction, in the long run, can't say it matters. I've got a few war novels, but most good books deal in small conflicts writ large; the human heart in conflict with itself, like Faulkner said.

M.A.Leslie said...

There is nothing wrong with wanting to write about Japan or any other tragedy. It is the way that you can express your emotions.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Steve, I was thinking about 9/11, too. And what I remembered was a lot of commentary about how this couldn't be written about, it was too big, it was somehow beyond art, and to attempt to do so was in some sense exploitative. War in the Gulf? No one should ever use a war metaphor again, or use a war analogy...

I think these ideas misinterpret the artistic impulse. The creative mind is not trying to use these events for some practical end, but trying to come to grip with them.

If anything should stand outside art it would be something like the Holocaust, and yet, perhaps more than anything, it's one of those things that demands art, that demands attempts (however paltry) at understanding, attempts at feeling, attempts at a deep and lasting empathy.

And I think that holds true for all events and stories, whether the small writ large, or the large writ small.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You're right - it's about connecting and understanding, and writing is a way of processing our thoughts and feelings.

Marsha Sigman said...

It's the stories that make it real for me. Not the videos or the arial pictures so removed from the chaos in the streets they appear to be images of carelessly tossed matchbox cars.

The stories make it real and bring it home. This is what we do and I won't apologize for that.

Tara Lindsay Hall said...

As they say in V for Vendetta, "Writers use lies to tell the truth." This is how we express our feelings, plain and simple. What I consider callous are the people that just ignore it, go on about their lives like it doesn't affect them. A tragedy of this magnitude affects every person on the planet, or at least it should. We're just working through it in our own way.


Steve said...

I don't know anything about the artistic impulse, but I'd hope the creative mind could remove itself from any and all current events.

Attempts are fine and sincere. But I find it more interesting that a book like FIFTH BUSINESS was written and published during the heights of civil upheavals and war and references nothing of that real world.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Well, Fifth Business wasn't a very good book. :)

And I certainly don't think the creative mind has to reference current events. But that's merely one option. I mean, what else should the creative mind be interested in except the world around it? There's books, of course, but creative intertextuality only goes so far. At some point the things you trip over have to find a way into the creative work (though, often, utterly transformed).

Paul Joseph said...

I like your approach to this, Bryan, and I think you are right on the money. I was glued to the television the moment it happened. My heart broke at the images of destruction and despair. My curiosity started asking questions that could not be answered. And, the writer in me, began creatively answering those questions based on my observations.

Matthew MacNish said...

I just have to chime back in that I can see both Steve and Bryan's side of the argument.

I mean on the one hand, I believe that there is nothing so sacred that it cannot be used as an inspiration for art. The apocalypse has been done, the holocaust has been done, human trafficking has been done, in fiction, sculpture, paint, rhyme, verse, interpretive dance ... it's all been done.

On the other hand certain things like this, require a level of respect that other things don't call for. My own view, and it's only my own, is that tragedies like this necessitate either a personal connection, or a far higher standard of talent than any other subject.

I would never write (creatively) about something like this because I don't have either.

Michelangelo wasn't at the creation of man though, and as far as I know Dante never actually went to hell.

Does that make them hacks? Would we think of them differently if their masterpieces had covered topics that were just as powerful, but contemporary for their times?

I've said enough, but I think there is no easy answer for this kind of thing.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

This is a fascinating topic and discussion. I'll admit to not being able to turn away from the coverage of Japan (as well as weeping for them), but it hasn't occurred to me to express my angst, horror, and empathy through story. But my kind of storytelling is different from yours, Bryan, which embraces so much tragedy.

I think when we see something so horrible and real and devastating, we crave an understanding of what is real about it. We want to know what happened, and to whom, and how can we help and what can we do? I want to know the name of the town that was swept away so completely that there is no one left to file missing persons reports. I want to mourn those people without names.

All of things are a way to deal with the raw pain of the event. Just like 9/11, though, I think we need to have some remove from it before we can deal with the deeper pain of the meaning of the event, which is what writing will bring out of it.

It was five years before I could read the fictionalized account of Flight 93, the plane that was was brought down by the passengers. I couldn't finish it; it was too soon. Now, I think I could.

Jessica Bell said...

There's nothing wrong at all wanting to write a story about this. After all, that is, as you say, WHY we write. The last sentence of your post sums it up for me. The effects of human condition. That's what stories are. Great post!

Lydia K said...

I think going forward with humility and respect makes it okay. This isn't about being a vulture, but processing a lot of emotions in a way writers know best--writing.

D.G. Hudson said...

Writing to understand is an eloquent statement, Bryan.

I find current events, and especially tragedy touches writers in a unique way. If we think there's something to be gained by our perspective (and most writers do think this) then we have to express our interpretation of events in a way that humanizes the experience.

If you're in that experience, you just go day to day in survival mode, trying not to think. The tenacity of the Japanese people and others who have endured catastrophes gives us insight into human nature.

My hubby says I'm too empathetic -- but it may be part of my writer's arsenal -- it may help me imagine the heights of passion and the depths of pain that humans can endure.

Great post, Bryan, and no, you're not a vulture, you're a writer trying to understand the world around you. It's what writers do.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Fifth grade haikus for Japan Awesome.