fiction can tell truth

Posted: January 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

I listen to books on CD in my car most of the time.  I tend to be a sleepy driver, and music tends to make that worse, whereas the lure of a well-told story will hold me well above the drowsy zone for hours and hours after music would have put me in the ditch. 

The book to which I am currently listening is told from the vantage point of a little girl during World War II.  Today as I was driving home from work, the little girl and her parents got news that her older brother, Buddy, was missing in action.  So well told was the story that I immediately went to a phone call from my son a couple of years or so ago.

He called to tell me he had a new plan.  Caleb always had a new plan.  I braced myself to hear this latest turn of events, and had to slowly and carefully sit down on my bed when he opened this one up:  he was going to volunteer for Afghanistan.  He calmly talked me through the whys and hows, and all I really remember from that phone call was how carefully, slowly and shallowly I breathed in and out through my mouth, centering every bit of my energy on making calm and supportive noises come out of it while tears paraded down my helpless cheeks. 

It was so important to me that he not hear me fall apart.  After all, it was me that had encouraged him throughout his boyhood to do his patriotic duty and serve his country (and, by the way, get a paid college education out of it).  It was me who stood by him so proudly as he signed on.  I hadn’t really begun to grasp the seriousness of what he had committed to, me with my almost supernatural abilities at denial, until I went to his graduation from Basic Training, where I learned that most of the boys with whom he had trained would be deployed directly to the front in either Afghanistan or Iraq.  It made me solemn and serious.

I’d had a lot of practice at being deeply afraid, where it came to the boy.  There was the pneumonia when he was an infant and the cat scratch fever (falsely first diagnosed by a careless physician as “either leukemia or lymphoma”) when he was just a little guy and there were all those crazy, gray-hair inducing stunts he pulled in junior high and high school.  I’d known fear all along, with Caleb.  But the fear that was struck in me with the word Afghanistan left me pretty much unable to cope for a couple of days after that call. 

It was a fear with many faces.  What if he didn’t survive the war?  And then the (probably worse) possibility – what if he DID survive it, but was forever ruined in the way that so many of our boys are, sent home shell-shocked, unstable, unemployable, unable to function normally among the rest of us?  What if he came home and was a victim of the massive epidemic of military suicides?  What if?  What if?

Friends asked why I was panicking.  “He changes his plan all the time!”  But I couldn’t summon the courage to hope he might do that, this time.  It didn’t feel safe to tread on that ground.  It felt like I needed to be ready for the hammer to fall. 

Thankfully, it was a short passage.  It didn’t take him long to make a new plan, and happily, he hadn’t signed on any lines while considering this one.  My little touch of terror was really that – just a touch – and cost me virtually nothing.  But it was enough of a touch that I stepped right into the shoes of the mother in the story my book on CD was telling – enough to instantly cause an actual physical pain in my chest and push tears down my face as I listened. 

I’ve not thought of myself as a fiction writer.  I like to write about truth.  I like to be real. 

Today, I realized – was reminded in a whole new way – that fiction writers DO tell truth.  They ARE real, sometimes in ways that a non-fiction book cannot be. 

I need to rethink my stance on writing fiction.  Maybe I need to go there, after all. 

  1. Cala says:

    Yes! Yes! Do it!

    • karen says:

      Your encouragement cracks me up every time I remember it! I can totally imagine the look on your face and the expression in your voice! Miss you, Cala!

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