“At first, art imitates life. Then life will imitate art.”–Fyodor Dostoevsky
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”–Oscar Wilde
Let’s say you write fiction based on topical current events. When violent events similar to what you write about in your fiction happen in real life, you chalk it up to coincidence and your overactive imagination. I, for one, never deliberately tone down violence nor do I make it gratuitous. I try to match the violence to the subject I’m writing about and to the context of the scene. So, for example, if I write about an ISIL beheading (and you know I will), some blood has to gush and not just for the sake of violence. Human physiology demands it. I also believe violence should never be watered down because if evil is behind it; then, evil needs to be seen for what it is in all its gory infamy.
This past week, I had brief, second thoughts about any sort of violence in my writing.
Last Tuesday, I rose early and went outside to work in the flower beds in the front of my house. I am by no means a gardener, nor do I enjoy “digging in the earth.” It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever. However, I did need to weed the flower beds and cut back last year’s now-dead growth (yes, last year’s; I mentioned I hate gardening) so my landscaping guys can come and re-mulch. It was a gorgeous sunny morning, and I did relish being outside despite the pollen making my eyes water. I finished up in good time and went back in the house, intending to take a soak in my spa tub.
Shortly before 0930, I heard two gunshots.
I knew they were gunshots, from a handgun, not a rifle, and I knew they were close, not from the woods nearby. But gunshots don’t happen in quiet, suburban neighborhoods. Besides, there was a new house being built across the street, and the builders were using nail guns. In but a few seconds I talked myself into having heard nail guns.
Instead of heading for my bath, though, I finished the morning paper and decided to get it to the recycle bin, already at the curb, because pick-up would be in an hour or so. I opened the garage door and went to the curb.
And heard a man screaming.
Diagonally across the street from my driveway, my neighbor lay half-in, half-out of his garage, and he was not shouting, not yelling, but screaming.
Man. Garage. Screaming. He fell off a ladder, I thought, because I’d so successfully pushed the thought of gunshots out of my head.
I reached him and leaned down. I saw some blood on the driveway, on his arm, a little on his mouth. I asked if he was okay. (Yeah, blood; dumb question.) He asked me to call 9-1-1. I knew I’d need to tell 9-1-1 why I wanted an ambulance, so I asked my neighbor what had happened.
“I’ve been shot.”
That’s when I saw a large stain of blood on his dark green shirt, in the area of his left shoulder.
Now, everyone who knows me knows my iPhone is rarely not on my person, but this morning it wasn’t because the shorts I wore to work in the yard had no pocket. I told my neighbor I’d have to go get my phone but that I would call right away. As I ran (yeah, I ran) back to my house, his screaming started again.
At one point in my life I investigated small airplane accidents. I’ve even had a couple of them occur while I was at an airport doing something else. I guess that investigator side never really left because as I was talking to the 9-1-1 operator, I was giving her details and in a calm demeanor. “That’s good,” she said, “keep telling me what’s happening.”
And I did, knowing this was being relayed to the police. She told me to stay on the line with her until the police arrived. I told her I was going to get some towels and go back to my neighbor.
“No, you’re not,” she said, and we argued a bit about my stopping his bleeding and her insistence I stay in my house. “You don’t know where the shooter is,” she said.
No buts from her. I did, however, concede to stay in my garage where I could keep an eye on my neighbor until the police arrived. As I waited, hearing sirens in the distance, I watched him stop moving, heard him stop vocalizing, but I stayed behind cover ’cause, you know, I write about this shit. About people who carry guns and who occasionally use them and know how to take cover when the bullets fly. But my stories are concocted, made up, fiction. My life doesn’t involve taking cover in my garage and watching a man who’s been shot grow paler.
The local, small-town police arrived, handled it very professionally, and took care of my neighbor. The ambulance came, they loaded him in–still alive–and took him away. The police “canvassed the neighborhood,” but it turns out I was the only one who heard or saw anything.
The policeman who interviewed me said, “Ma’am, you’re very calm.”
Airplane accidents I told him. This guy was in one piece.
Two reporters interviewed me. “Ma’am, you’re very detailed.”
Former accident investigator, I told them. Details are important.
And because this is the era of social media, I posted a brief description on Facebook.
“You just got involved because you write this stuff,” someone commented.
And that’s where the second-guessing and self-doubt came in. Had I approached this with a writer’s eye, taking in detail I could turn into a scene in a story or novel? Had I responded as a fiction writer and not as a concerned citizen? Should I have stayed in my house like every other neighbor had?
The answer is no, no, and no.
As the day unfolded, the neighborhood gleaned more details. My neighbor was shot by his wife, who fled the scene and was pulled over by police an hour away from our neighborhood. At some point during the confrontation with the police, she shot and killed herself. She had recently been diagnosed with advanced brain cancer and had but a few weeks to live. She had expressed suicidal thoughts to her family. (One of her relatives lives in the neighborhood.) The man I found shot survived and is likely out of hospital by now. No one has returned to their home, with its perfect lawn and blooming flowers.
So, yeah, I’m a writer. I see details. You don’t like it? Bite me.
If I were to write this, it would have a better ending. No one would be dead. No one would be shot, certainly not someone I see in the neighborhood every day. At the very least, my neighbor would have been accidentally shot while trying to stop his wife from hurting herself. But the happy endings are rare. Sometimes they only occur in fiction, as described by a writer.
In the meantime, my characters will still carry guns, and they will still use them when it’s necessary. I will still describe violence appropriate to the context of the story. Now, unfortunately, I can lend it verisimilitude.
“Then life will find its very existence from the arts.”–Fyodor Dostoevsky