Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.David Foster Wallace
Life--that wonderful solar-powered accident of proteins and amino acids--is naturally bounded by its beginning and its end. Before its beginning and after its end, the intricate chemical processes that give rise to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, love, and sonnets are mostly atoms going about their nanoscale business. Bonds are created and broken, first during the anti-entropic dance that eventually bursts into the actuality of consciousness, and later during the complex decay of substances into other substances, all of which will eventually be reused, like that molecule of oxygen you shared with Buddha just now.
Now, there's a groove that happens when the processes that govern our various physical substances are all crackling along, smooth and fine, molecular machinery with atom-toothed gears all whirring with the precision and regularity of the thermonuclear fusion that propels the shine of starlight into our living eyes and perceptive minds. The intangible processes by which we contemplate the world around us tend not to notice the tangible processes that power the pumping of our blood and the rumblings of our guts.
However, the central fact of our existence is that this smooth and swinging groove must inevitably falter and cease. Physical injury can disrupt its beats, disease will interrupt its melodies, and eventually our ability to perceive and process the sensual input of the world around us will end. The intangible processes of our consciousness will vanish, and only the tangible stuff that hosted those processes will remain.
It's a simple thing, in one sense, so ubiquitous that it borders on the banal. So very common. We know how the music ends: all beats stilled, all of the ephemeral processes that comprise individual personhood dispersed into silence. I think it would not be too presumptuous to suggest that it is not death itself that most people fear, but a bad death: a painful death, a lingering death, a death alone or surrounded by strangers, a death bereft of dignity.
Everyone has to confront that fear. However, it's one thing to do so within yourself, and quite another to bear witness to that confrontation as it takes place within someone else.
Fifteen years ago I wrote a short story, titled You Can't Go Back, Mr. Mountain. It was about a man who had chartered a small single-engine plane to fly him over the San Francisco Bay, so that he could empty his mother's ashes into the air above the Golden Gate Bridge. The title was a reference to the idea that the death of a parent is a milepost that, once passed, creates a permanent demarcation.
It was an okay story, as far as it went, but I never submitted it for publication. It lacked a certain verisimilitude, a subtle depth of tone and imagery that could only be gained, I thought, by actually experiencing the kind of deep loss that the main character had experienced. I didn't know very much about loss then, deep or otherwise. Perhaps I wasn't giving myself enough credit--maybe, if I had submitted it, what I saw as a lack of depth wouldn't have been apparent to someone else. I put the story aside, telling myself that I would come back to it. My mother was still healthy, and the notion of passing the milepost of her death seemed far in the future.
It's not so far in the future, now. Her health has been declining precipitously for the past three years, the result of a progressive and chronic illness, a twenty-seven year-old surgical error, and a bad roll of the genetic dice. I can see that milepost now, and some days it seems very close indeed.
During times of unusual or intense life-drama, I used to joke--in the way that one jokes about that which isn't a joke at all--that it was "all material." That is: the strange and traumatic vagaries of life form a deep well from which to draw inspiration for fiction. I still believe that, more strongly than ever, and these days, I don't pretend to joke about it.
I don't intend to turn the events of my life into the crass bones of my stories. I'm not going to be writing a melodramatic tale that centers on a young man whose mother is dying of a progressive chronic illness. I'm not taking mental notes so that I can write manipulative, tear-jerking scenes. But I am aware, as my mother and I progress through this experience together, of an expansion and deepening of my emotional vocabulary. I am gaining insight into the subtleties of incipient loss, and this experience is transferable to my fiction, because it's human.
I've written about my overt intentions for my current project. But without genuine human experience beneath the exotic and flashy narrative, there is nothing to bridge the gap between me as the teller of the tale and you as its reader. It becomes cold and sterile, a product to be consumed rather than a story to be experienced.
I believe we have enough consumable products in this culture. I'd like to believe that I can create something a bit less disposable. To do that, I'm willing to use the entirety of my human experience.
Good and bad, ugly and beautiful, meaningful and pointless. It's all material. It's what draws a reader in, and it's what makes a tale worth telling.