One of the hardest things I’ve had to do lately. . . I am hesitant to say “ever”. . . is to write the words and third-person glimpses of the thoughts and mind of a young child whose parents have just been murdered. We’re talking five years old here. I had no idea just how difficult a task this would be, or how many pauses I would require to dab away tears of my own as I go. At times I even have to step away.
Sure, I’ve stepped away from my writing before. Plenty of times. It’s a bit of a ritual, actually: write until I hit a proverbial wall, then step away to coffee myself (or take a vape or whatever) and walk around a bit until I’ve come up with more to say. But this marks the first-ever time I have had to walk away for another purpose entirely: to gather my wits in the wake of a tumult of sheer emotional overload.
What is it about innocence, particularly the innocence of youth, that so firmly pulls at the heartstrings? The simple answer is “sympathy”. . . but is that it, or is there more to it than that?
Here’s the thing. It would be easy to gloss over the whole thing. It would be simple, if this were any other project, to state that a tragedy has happened, the poor child was all broken up by it, boo-hoo, and then five years have passed, or ten or twelve. But I can’t do that. This is an ongoing monthly series, and I am in the thick of the narrative which involves other plots and characters as well, so I can’t gloss over it. I have to be there, with and for this child, as she wakes the next morning, as the police conduct their investigation, as stern and official strangers question her about what she saw and heard and did, as the adult forces around her attempt to find her next of kin and determine where she will live until such time.
And all the while, I have to put myself in this child’s shoes. I have to muster the manufacture of her responses, verbal and non-verbal alike. It is a difficult task indeed to create, from thin air. . . to cull into being. . . something so heartbroken and confused and utterly abandoned (even if by force) as this. And then I still have to make it clear and succinct. Because the world still demands terse, lean writing. “Accessible and concise” rules the roost in the world of prose, and I find myself struggling to conform.
The overwhelming urge is to devolve into a Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness style (and I use the word “devolve” with all due respect to Faulkner, not to knock that style as anything “lesser” but merely to illustrate what feels like the expectations of the modern audience for clarity and sharp focus). It would be far less painful, or at the very least more therapeutic, that way. And indeed, I have used this style to open Chapter 2 of Issue #1, but it felt warranted then, because someone was unconscious yet still thinking, and it made for a hell of a flashback.
But this time, again, I have no choice but to face the horrors of writing out in painful detail the tribulations of this poor young thing. Not only have her parents been murdered, but she came face to face with her mother as the life was draining away. She had to endure the scarring sight of it, and the confusion of her own mother sounding, to her young ears, angry in urging the child to run.
“There was so much blood. I didn’t want to run, but Mama told me I had to. I didn’t want her to be mad at me and be so badly hurt, too.” She began to sob freely as she struggled through her next words: “I didn’t know why she was yelling at me to leave her. I don’t know what I did wrong.”
And that’s just one little passage, at one little point in time. Ugh, I can’t even. . . .
But I’ll plow through it. It is my job to do so. I have to go to the darker places in my created world, as well as the light. I have to plumb the depths of the horrors as well as the light-hearted quips and one-liners. There has to be stark contrasts from time to time, else the highs will never be truly as high as their potential allows. It is my personal opinion that if a writer does not explore the darkness of his or her creation, and take the reader down into those depths, the high points and humor will come across as mere bubblegum-pop-glitter.
It seems fitting to me that this exploration starts in earnest, in this particular case, in Issue #2. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have often said that the second installment of a storyline should be darker, with greater risks, truer threats and much more to lose. This does not, however, make the task any easier. I am getting through this issue not only by sheer force of will, but also with plenty of funny cat videos and Nintendo 3DS sessions. You have to do something when you step away, after all.
Just know this: It’s okay to cry when you write. When it happens, you’ll know you’ve hit a primal truth in some raw, lurking form, and there’s an overwhelming chance that this truth lurks not only within yourself, but within the reader as well.