Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Idea Garage Sale Continued Some More: Disasters, you get the drill

Wow, suddenly there's a fire in the middle of the Edwards Plateau! (No, I did not omit an apostrophe; Edwards is the name of the place.) That's probably an ordinary brush fire we'd never have heard of without all the rest of this going on; though it could easily become something more. Looks like if Arkansas and Louisiana aren't dealing with this yet, they will be by sundown.

So anyway, we come now to the core problem at the heart of the process of writing about disasters, and if you solve this one the rest will fall into place:

What business do you have with it?

Seriously, what qualifies you to write about this disaster; to reduce it to page and word count, comprehensible narrative sequence, and some sort of resolution? Because you have to resolve something at the end of the book - answer a question, wrap up a story, achieve a catharsis, something, or the reader will be dissatisfied. But the people who live in the aftermath of a similar disaster will call BS on you, because they know resolution is a fantasy. People who died are still dead, and mere curiosity about the manner of their deaths is intrusive and offensive. People who survived are still dealing with it - waking up in the middle of the night sweating from it, overprotecting their children, taking paranoid precautions against it ever happening again. Where do you get off talking about it, when a lot of them can't?

If you're a survivor, yourself, that answer is simple. You talk about it because they can't; because somebody has to, and you can, so it defaults to you to tell the story. Telling the story is important to us as a species. We organize a lot of our intelligence and culture around the process. If the story is told, well and honestly, that is a good in itself. It's hard to articulate why, but I doubt you'd be reading this blog at all if you didn't feel that in your gut.

But what if you're not a survivor? If you're writing about an imaginary disaster inspired by a real one you didn't participate in, or setting a novel against the background of a real disaster, or acting as the historian of a real one? What gives you the right to do that? To turn real pain and anguish into an entertainment, or an interesting true-life tale, or - if you're an academic historian - tenure?

The historian's role in a disaster is the same as it always is. If no single person can tell the whole story, then the historian exists to assemble the bits and pieces. He can do it well, helping people understand what happened; or he can do it ill, pushing some agenda of his own. But at least the role itself is a viable one. The story needs telling. The historian is the servant of the story.

So is the novelist; but we run a special hazard. I illustrated it yesterday. Nothing takes the edge off a tragedy like cliched delivery. Nothing violates like trivialization. We are breaking a kind of trust with our species if we reduce real-life horror to a mere voyeuristic entertainment or lure the reader into playing the Prediction game.

A fictional character can give us the key that allows us to compassionately share the humanity of other people and understand the viewpoint of survivors; who may, face it, seem a little crazy after the disaster is over.

Or - a fictional character can overlay the real people and lead us to view them as mere characters in a story.

Do you really understand what went on well enough to do the first and not the second? Are your skills up to the job?

More importantly - can you bear to do the job?

Tune in tomorrow and I'll finally get to the point I wanted to make all along.

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