Writing in the Face of Tragedy

A few years ago, I had a colleague say to me that when most people wanted to stay away after tragedy struck a mutual friend, I ran toward her instead, and that would be something our friend would never forget. At the time, not even the Atlantic Ocean could keep me from her and I found myself on a plane two days later. I couldn’t bear to think of the pain she was going through and somehow felt that my presence would be of some comfort. Over three years later, I sometimes wonder whether I did it for her or for me. After all, maybe I could be a shoulder, maybe I could be of some use, maybe it would make me feel needed. Was I being selfish? Perhaps, though my intentions were honourable. Perhaps others were right to give her space and come only when she reached out. In the face of sudden tragedy, my actions were reactions. Reacting out of love for a dear friend.

I didn’t know how to deal with such a life-changing event. Even though she fell into my arms at the time, I suddenly felt useless and intrusive. I hadn’t suddenly lost a child – she had. I had never been faced with grief – she had. I couldn’t possibly feel the depth of her pain. All I could do was be there. One week later, I had to go back to my life abroad – to take care of my family. A string of emails would have to suffice until I could see my friend again during the summer and try to be that little bit of a crutch for a few weeks until I had to go away again and again and again.

This is where writing comes into play – for me at least. How can a friend truly understand another’s pain? Our heart breaks for them, but unless we have experienced such a tragedy, we cannot come close to understanding, not for a millisecond. I’ve come to realize though, that as close friends, we hurt too. We hurt because we feel some of their pain. We don’t know the pain, but we do feel it. Our tendency is to brush off how it affects us, because we’re not the important ones here, our suffering friend is. It’s taken me these three years to understand that we do matter, our pain matters, too. It hurts to know that I can never heal my friend. I can’t bring back her son. But I can do something. I can write.

When I began writing my novel, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, I had already developed the premise of the book. But as fate or the gods or whatever one wants to believe in would have it, her son found a place in my heart through my writing. It was through his inspiration that I was able to heal as a friend. It was through him and weaving his personality into my character, that I became stronger. I felt as though I was doing something worthwhile. It was as though my character, Christian Hunter wouldn’t exist without her son. And he wouldn’t. I needed a charismatic young man in my story. I needed him to be someone people felt good to be around. I needed him to be the kind of character that made others feel as though they were the most important person in the room. I needed him to be a good listener, inquisitive and down to earth. He needed to be someone who didn’t care how much money others made but still appreciated the finer things in life. He needed to be comfortable in his own company, sit and read a book in a crowded restaurant and thoroughly enjoy it. He needed to have strong morals and be deliciously easy-going. Only one person could fill my characters shoes and that was my friend’s son. He gave my character life and I will forever be grateful.

We are fortunate as writers to be able to use our passion to help heal us or in many cases, help ease the pain. Through writing, I was able to recognize my own pain through my friend’s experience. It helped me validate it and give it a voice. The result was a character of whom I am immensely proud, one who reminds me every day of the incredible son that my friend raised. It reminds me of the incredible parents he has and will always have in life and in death.

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Get Outside, Go for a Walk, Play, Hangout, Do Something – but get off that smartphone!

Something has been nagging me for quite some time and as a mom it cannot be swept under the rug. In fact, it’s plaguing most moms these days and I would hazard a guess that the culprit lay heavily in those little machines that our children seem to worship – the almighty smartphone. It would be unfair of me to target only our children. We adults are quite addicted ourselves. I read a very good article yesterday on Today.com by Jen Hatmaker, What Would My Mom do? Like hers, my mom would tell me to go outside and play. Now that my own children are apparently too old to “play”, and apparently “hang out” now with friends, I find they are actually “hanging out” via FaceTime and Skype. Unbelievable! Go outside, meet people! This morning, I went for a walk in the neigbourhood, through the forest and over to the paddocks where horses usually graze. Didn’t see any today. The sun was shining, two deer pranced away when they saw me approaching, no children, no smartphones but plenty of birds skittering after each other. It was heavenly. I thought if only my children would get out of bed and enjoy such an early morning walk. If they had, they could have met the interesting character I did this morning. No smartphone can imitate those surroundings, the sounds, the fresh spring air finally seeping into the west coast, and the chance meeting at the fork of two country roads. Interesting indeed! This man looked like something taken straight out of a Tolkien book – a forest-like hermit really. I wasn’t sure whether to run in the opposite direction, but clearly we were both only out to enjoy the gorgeous weather. This man had a no-nonsense dog with him that I could hear panting behind me until he caught up, sniffing my leg curiously. Not the man but the dog! His name was Rambo. Yes! I repeat, Rambo (the dog not the man). Quite unlike Swedes, who generally don’t look at passers-by, this older man was cheery. I’m quite sure the sun put a spring in his step. We began chatting and within two sentences, he said to me that he detected an English dialect. Here we go again, I thought to myself. I replied, “You could hear that directly?” (in Swedish of course) “Ja,” as though I should be surprised. I like to kid myself into believing that if I speak Swedish quickly enough, I will fool the locals with my very natural Göteborgs dialect. Somehow I always fail miserably. Needless-to-say, he was very curious and asked me all sorts of questions about Canada. He had heard that Canada’s landscape was similar to Sweden’s. Yes, that’s true. He even had some relatives living there – in Ontario was all he could remember. Then it was time to part ways when I asked about Rambo. He asked me if I knew where the name Rambo came from. I looked at the beast, no longer wondering if he’d take one of my limbs away with him, and said that of course I knew the film. He proceeded to tell me that the name Rambo comes from the Swedish immigrant Peter Gunnarsson Rambo, who brought apple seeds to the United States in 1637. It’s possible that the Rambo seeds are responsible for the first truly American apples. Now, if I hadn’t gone for that walk this morning, I may never have learned that bit of trivia. So, get off your smartphones kids, get outside and go for a walk. You never know what you’ll see or who you’ll meet, and you will never, ever regret walking away with all limbs in tact!