Monday, June 18, 2007

My Safety Net?

Posted by Lisa

I'm naive. A safety net is open beneath me - sometimes I truly believe that. I know it was there when I learned to stand. Of course, I don't remember teetering with my mother's hands poised an inch on either side of me. Must I remember details to know exactly how it happened?

I was seven when I learned to ride a bike without training wheels. My hair was loose - half an hour earlier I had pulled out the pompom hair bands my grandmother had painstakingly fixed onto my ponytails. It was my father, this time, who guarded me, running alongside my bicycle as I mastered my balance, until could make it the full way along the sidewalk - all the way to the Kosta's split level on the corner - and back.

Much of the time my world is a setting where characters are predictable - and safe. Husbands pour tea for their wives. Children are safe, tucked in at night in a world without tsunamis or earthquakes; no bombs explode at midnight. Even dogs live to a ripe old age, dying in their sleep, with dignity.

But sometimes, my world isn't, exactly, safe.

In my work as an occupational therapist I see parents face a child's disability and wonder why. That question haunts me long after I meet with them. Days after I work with a little girl with autism, her bright eyes are still fresh in my mind - how can her eyes be so blue?

I have never been drawn to more serious fiction. "Heavy" subjects terrify me. I've been reading Scott Heim's Mysterious Skin. It's brilliant and beautifully written. I am partway through it. As a writer, Scott makes me care about his characters. Care so so much. Only eight years old, Brian, the main character, is too like small boys I have known. You know the boys, the ones who needs baths at the end of every summer day since dirt is a second skin that coats them. The ones who toss a couple of Webkinz in the backseat of their Subarus, as their mothers check the seatbelt is tight over their carseats. Each night at their household, there are rules about eating vegetables and brushing teeth.

This is my reality. But it is not reality. Too many boys live a life, like Brian, where bad things happen to innocent small people.

I'm naive, but I'm not blind; my safety net could unravel. Perhaps a strong wind could send it flying, a tumbleweed across a Kansas plain. That security I feel each day is false. There is no safety net. I know that.

From a writing perspective, I love that Mysterious Skin is told from a first person point of view. In the spirit of the number one writing rule, show don't tell, Scott Heim, has taught me the effect the choice POV has on a work of fiction. The lesson? First person point of view brings you in, pulls you tight into a caring that takes firm hold before you knowingly allowed it to happen.

Writing is facing a subconcious haunting that has taken hold and has forced you to think. Reading is caring about characters, oftentimes in circumstances I can barely imagine. I don't liker darker fiction, but I do like falling in love with a child, a grandparent, a teenager who lives a life I can't imagine. Maybe reading about circumctances I can barely fathom will help me to see the real world, not block out issues that frighten me, but face them, address and deal with them, even.



Larramie said...

It's true that reading is caring about the characters who come to life when you open and fall into a book. As a matter of fact, if I don't care, I don't read.

Lisa Marnell said...

And, Larramie, I suppose it is easy for authors to forget we must help our readers to care too. We already love our characters, but the reader is only just meeting them for the first time.


Lisa said...

I hadn't heard of Mysterious Skin until your recent post, but it sounds very powerful. I think one of the marks of a truly gifted author is to give us a deeper level of comprehension of characters that might not be especially likable on the surface. I can see how Brian is a victim that anyone could sympathize with, but I'm curious to know if Scott Heim was able to make you feel compassion for the second victim as well -- despite the fact that he is not nearly as sympathetic a character on the outside. I'm making an assumption that he's probably not as likable on the outside based solely on what I've read about the book. Great food for thought!

Therese said...

Lisa: very insightful musing on the power of fiction. I like how you examine this from the perspectives of reader and writer both.

The power of an authentic first-person narrative can be astonishing. I'll have to take a look at Mysterious Skin.p

Lisa Marnell said...

I suppose we in our writer's group in Boston are lucky to meet such talented authors as Michael Lowenthal (Charity Girl, Avoidance)and Scott Heim (Mysterious Skin). Sitting down and talking with a writer after having read their work is such a treat!