Life After Death

On Sunday, I spent half an hour driving behind a red pickup truck with a large roll of plastic piping protruding vertically out of its cargo bed. The piping, looped and bound by bungee cords, was positioned in the middle of the box, a divider. On either side of the vertical coil was a deer; an antlered and hoofed pair of stags.

Just recently I started writing a short story about a young man who calls on his father at midnight to help him field dress a moose that had succumbed to its injuries after a fatal encounter with a dump truck. My thoughts have been peppered with the particulars of animal intestines (what does one do with them?), the musky smell of moose hide (is it musky— horse musky, or dog musky?), and the nuances of a father/son relationship. 

It is hunting season out here in the Canadian boonies, and every day I’ve chanced upon a person dressed in camouflage. It turns out that even camo clothing has name brand versions of the wilderness dress— NOMAD has superior leaf patterns, apparently? I’m clueless to comment, but I have been studying the commentary for weeks. Along with the technicalities of hunting, there has been much attention paid to the hunter’s emotional attachment to this pastime— how grandpa dressed his deer was important, cause the meat tasted different if he did it in a different way.  The stories that each hunter has told me will help me write my own. I’ve been on my own hunt of sorts; hunting the hunter. 

Writing stories, fictional stories, carries a weight for me. I believe in the art of fiction, in its beauty and power to change a reader’s psyche. A good story, or rather, a well-written story is simple. Flowery language, obtuse thought patterns, this is what happens when the writer doesn’t have the ability or desire to communicate properly. And simple writing is hard. Flipping hard. Because, I’m sure you’ll agree, most honest communication does not happen in words. Humans communicate by body language, voice pitch, facial expression and action, these are our primary tools for communication. A writer only gets to use words. 

I sat behind my steering wheel on Sunday, cruise control allowing my mind to wander a bit, and I examined those poor, hapless deer. They had already been dressed, and I could see into their bellies through the gaping hole left by the determined hunter. Brown, not red. And their beautiful hoofs small in comparison to the rest of their bulk. Speckled, not brown. And then there were the eyes. Inky hollows. But it was the juxtaposition between the plastic piping and the deer that intrigued me the most. Even in death, the deer seemed more alive than the plastic. Obviously, you might say, but it didn’t seem obvious to me at the time. There was a story there, but I couldn’t see it. 

The story lay not with what was in the back of the truck, but with the hunter driving it. He was going to utilize both the stags and the piping, and yet only the deer brought its own life. 

The earliest story I remember being told was The Three Little Pigs. The Disney version. Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Remember that? The narrative is classic: hero (third little pig), loser sidekicks (2 lazy brothers) and an antagonist. Hate the wolf, praise the pig. But at some point in my youth, I read a version that told of a wolf down of his luck, of a pig who wouldn’t share his apples, and I thought, the wolf is just being a wolf, and when he tried to eat the apple instead of the pig, the pig denied him. The pig deserves to get eaten; that’s nature. My psyche shifted a little.

The stories we read when we are young shape us in a way that no other story ever will. They become mental humus, the nutrient-dense fertilizer for germinating ideas of who and what we are. I’m so glad that my parents read to us often. Kipling, Brothers Grimm, Blyton, Edward Lear’s nonsense poems.  And then came the tales that infected my soul as a teenager: The L-Shaped Room was the first time I realized a young woman could be powerful; The River God was the first time I encountered a fictional historical narrative that informed me about the past… and that I could have a crush on a make-believe man— an ancient Egyptian eunuch. That is some strong, useful humus, I tell ya!

Most notable in my curated list was, The Khaya Boetjies. The story I read in STD. 7 ( Grade 9) which told of a young black boy being beaten up by a grown man for playing with his white son. It was the first time I had read a fictional story that illustrated the suffering of a black person— remember, I was raised in Apartheid South Africa. Propaganda has more to do with what we withhold from our children than the lies we feed them. You see, this book gave me a different point of view, just like the alternative telling of  Three Little Pigs. And I was horrified. And my psyche shifted again. 

So why does fiction, stories that are made-up or un(true), have such immense power? And they do— the American Civil war was sparked by a fictional story, for example. 

New to this writing business, I’m now starting to realize that what I bring into a story has less to do with the right words, and more to do with my humanity. My humanity, the collection of unconscious data, gets mixed into everything I write, like salt. When I write the story about the roadkill, there will be a seasoning that is interwoven through my words— the little bits of humanity I’ve been collecting about the world of hunting, little nuances, and backstories that will coat the story and help a reader to feel connected to something or someone they have never encountered before. A good story will change how you feel. A great story will change your psyche. 

Why is it important that people spend time doing something that might put them in the uncomfortable position of changing their mind? Well, mostly because believe it or not, most of the ideas we have or positions we take in life are not a result of choice… you’ve fallen into a way of thinking by default. There are VERY few viewpoints (in comparison to the millions of opinions we have about everything from dairy mucus to alien visitations), that we’ve taken the time to examine. Reading fiction is a way of analyzing your worldview without it being labour intensive. All pleasure, no pain, incremental growth.  

In the same way, the hunter in the red pick-up truck will consume the deer, the reader of any fictional narrative is consuming something that once had its own life— the story lived in the mind of a writer. While the hunter might not think about what the deer ate or experienced in its short life, he (the hunter) will nevertheless benefit from those experiences. 

Every story has a life of its own. And a writer’s work is to give that story an honourable death— the story dies once it has left the writers imagination and is put down on the page. A good death will result in the contribution to someone else’s mental soil; the dark organic matter that adds to the reader’s growth and nourishment. A great story can feed the world.

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