Not Normal, or, The Broken Rib

Writing is not a normal job.

In most normal jobs, you don’t find yourself writhing around in bed at 2:00 in the morning because a phrase came to you that began to illuminate a character that’s been in your head, on and off, for a year. Similarly, you don’t get out of bed and write for 90 minutes, pleading with your fingers to keep up with your brain.

This is not a new thought. I’ve known for a long time that I’m not suited for normal work, and I’ve known just as long that the thing inside me that possesses me to write isn’t, like, what you want to instill in your children, necessarily. An obsession to express? A need to find the right combination of words so that at 3:15 you can start crying at your keyboard?

No, this is not normal.

I tend to know I’m onto something when I surprise myself. When something I write steals my own breath. I don’t know if this is a brand of narcissism; it may well be, but when I say ‘surprise myself’ I am not referring to how “good” the writing is. More how raw it is. It connects to something deep within, and It’s a level deeper than what propelled me out of bed an hour earlier. That’s what tells me I have traction.

Let me explain:

For two years now, I’ve been contemplating an upsetting scene where a teen boy is molested by an older man. I’ve avoided it because it’s upsetting. When I contemplate such a scene, what typically comes to me are phrases that stick around. In my own brain, this has been the “I’m not here” scene.

I finally wrote it last night, after something told me, at 2 in the morning, that I needed to. But it was what happened in the lines after the ones with which I was familiar that got me.

Here is the last paragraph of the “I’m not here” scene I’d known about but avoided writing for so long, followed by the line that made me gasp:

During, Doug floated to the top of the room and watched from above. He was keenly aware of the bald patch the cowboy had in the center of his head, the one that had been hidden by the hat. He saw the tired, glassy eyes of the cowboy for what they were, and he wanted to hug him and tell him it didn’t have to be like this, that there was a better way, which was a hilarious thought for Doug to have and he knew it but he still had it anyway. And time stretched like bubble gum, and lost its taste, like bubble gum, and Doug found a litany that he repeated as he watched the thing happen, from above, as he watched and felt nothing that he should have felt, not even pain. I’m not here, I’m not here, I’m not here.

            After, he walked home and an emptiness settled in his chest and broke one of his ribs, pushing out toward his heart. 

Ah! I’ve had emptiness before in my writing. I’ve had pushing sensations in the chest. I like to put sensations in the body rather than naming feelings, because it makes it more real for the reader (and the writer). But in all my years of writing, an emptiness had never broken a bone before. And I had to think: is this literal? Metaphorical?

ImageIt doesn’t matter. It’s true. It’s a true line, and it brought Doug to life for me. He is the most tragic character I’ve ever written, and I feel him today. I felt him last night. And I know: it’s not normal.

It’s not normal to go back to bed and feel the tears slide down your cheeks and onto the sheets, and know that you’re crying because of the emptiness inside Doug that made him feel his ribs break.