Life Can Imitate Art–Unfortunately

“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.

Oh. But…

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


On Wednesday of last week, those of us who participate in Friday Fictioneers got our photo prompt for our 100-word stories for Friday. On Thursday evening, I drafted and edited a story and scheduled it through WordPress to publish at 0600 on Friday morning. (You can find the story, “Status Update,” by clicking on the Friday Fictioneers tab above and selecting it from the drop-down list.)

It is absolute and utter coincidence that the story, “Status Update,” is about a terrorist who is preparing a bomb to blow up a school, and it’s a poetic justice story–the terrorist blows himself up instead. I like poetic justice stories, and I like writing stories where bad people get their comeuppance. Again, this idea came into my head on Thursday, and I wrote it on Thursday, at least twenty-four hours before the horrible events in Newtown, Connecticut.

Over the weekend, several readers of this blog suggested I take the story down, and, frankly, on Friday, I did consider just that, mainly because the story involved an act of terror at a school.

Then, I remembered I don’t let murderers and terrorists dictate my behavior, and I certainly don’t let them make me censor myself.

I was a federal employee during both the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11. On both occasions, we were sent home–for a day only. The following day we were back at work, doing the people’s business. That was especially important after the Oklahoma City bombing because a federal building had been attacked.

Had we not gone back to work as soon as possible after Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh and the anti-government types would have won; they would have shut the government down, which is what they wanted. Had we not gone back to work on September 12, 2001, al Qaeda would have won a battle, and that was not acceptable. Believe me, with the Pentagon smoldering a few miles away, it was difficult, as a supervisor, to explain to people why they had to be at work the day after, but they understood the simple concept of not letting the bad guys win.

With the cursor hovering over the “Delete” icon for that Friday Fictioneers story on Friday afternoon, I remembered that feeling of carrying on, of not letting the bad guys win. I realized if I took that story down, I’d be hiding a possibility people needed to know.

People exist who want to blow up schools because they think teachers are union thugs or the curriculum isn’t biblical enough or because they believe children are kept from praying. They’re out there right now, ranting and raving, plotting and planning, but most of them are too cowardly, thank goodness, to follow through. They are an unfortunate reality we have to face, and I’ll write more about this on my political blog on Wednesday.

For this, my writing blog, I’ll just say, no, I wasn’t prescient. Because of research, I know how people like this think, and it’s not fun or pleasant. Further, I’d never glorify people like the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in my writing, but I will make certain in my stories the bad guys get justice, poetic or otherwise.

No, I won’t stop writing about characters who carry guns to protect themselves or to achieve that justice, and, no, I won’t stop writing about people who do bad things and the bad things they do. I will keep writing about getting justice for the oppressed, the injured, the murdered.

Even in real life when justice seems elusive, in fiction you can provide it, and you can get closure. And the bad guys will always lose.