The real world nudges us continually, whether we like it or not. I got one of life’s painful nudges this past week when my Aunt Shirley passed away suddenly. (The photo was taken in 1954, the year I was born.) I could write volumes about my aunt from a variety of perspectives. Just the memories of my vacation trips with her, my uncle, and two cousins when I was a teenager would provide some vivid material that would flow easily, no doubt aided by a heavy wash of tears. I could write about the grief, about the vacancy such a loss creates, about the stunning realization that so many older members of my family have vanished. When our roots wither beneath us, what happens then?
Ironically, the real “nudges” we encounter from life may freeze up our writing rather than stimulate it. When death, grief, and loss aren’t abstract issues, writing about them can be a lot more difficult. Fixing the passing of a loved one in words gives it irrefutable substance even as the individual’s physical being seems to dissolve before our mind’s eye. The fear that we can hasten that vanishing by writing about it can be debilitating. No wonder some writers can deal with wild, imaginary worlds full of the most brutal violence, but can’t compose a few lines when even a distant acquaintance or relation passes away.
Reality’s ugly nudges aren’t gentle prompts; often we get bitch-slapped or beaten around the head. The response shouldn’t be to push back or to build on the trauma by nudging ourselves to get past it. There’s no honor in bruising ourselves more, and nothing decrees that we must write in response to the cruel nudges of life as we receive them. Me, I’m one of those emotional masochists and brutal realists who goes toe-to-toe with life. I don’t always win. As writers, when dealing with something as painful as death, we really need to choose our battles carefully.