I found myself stuck last weekend. Not in a traffic jam or in the mud, not even “in the middle with you," which is something we can all probably say this election cycle, regardless of party affiliation! I was stuck for words – the bane of every writer’s existence.
Right now I'm writing a short story about a depressing subject; the thirty-nine minutes in 2015 before a Germanwings pilot purposely crashed a commuter jet into a mountain in the Alps, killing everyone on board. The story was prompted by a nightmare I had recently about dying in a plane crash.
I suspect anyone old enough to remember the horrors of September 11th has had the same fleeting thought when embarking a commercial airliner. Our minds take us there, like it or not. But this surreal dream differed from my paranoia about the infinitesimal probability of dying in a plane crash.
My dream was both horrendous and beautiful. In it I discovered that the human mind overcomes fear in the end, no matter the outcome. Sure, I awoke to the sound of blood swooshing across my eardrums, and my heart and lungs heaving like dueling bellows. I was in fight-or-flight mode, but at peace too. Was it the same for the 150 souls on board that plane? I wanted to capture it if possible, no matter how dire the topic.
Of course, my story's fictitious, even though it intertwines fabricated characters with very real and tragic events. Because of this, and out of the respect for both those who perished and their grief-stricken loved ones, I must make sure the trauma of their experiences isn’t minimized, which brings me back to being at a loss for words.
Needing inspiration, I wracked my mind for a work that successfully marries truth and fiction to discuss sensitive subject matter. When I realized I have an example of this type of verisimilitude on my bookshelf, I dusted off Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and got to re-reading some of the short stories within it.
Based upon his experiences in Vietnam, O’Brien interweaves real-life action with stories about his platoon while on deployment. They are fantastical anecdotes about the travesties of war, packaged alongside the resilience of human experience. He spins his tales so it's difficult to know whether he recounts ‘stranger than fiction’ events that actually happened, or whether he imagined his stories purposely to give voice to the absurdity of war. Regardless, O’Brien takes his readers on the same horrendous journey as his brothers-in-arms. These men take pause to consider the value of war while clanking aluminum canteens against overburdened rucksacks across hostile terrain.
I want to do the same for readers with my story. I want to show that there's a blissful human state when faced with imminent death. It will be carefully vetted by trusted friends to make sure I’ve at least hit the target, if not the mark. If it doesn’t pass muster, I will archive it along with the rest of my stories that won’t ever see the light of day. If it does? Watch this space.
Have you ever written about a sensitive topic? If you did, please share your experiences. How did you present the subject matter? Did you allow your characters to carry the load? Did you have to step back emotionally in order to go there? Let us know below!