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Monday, June 26, 2017

Write What Scares You

Smart cats, writers, teachers, coaches will advise you to write what scares you. Much like acting, writing scared is about the courage to dig deep and the choices you make to portray that fear.
For a long time I considered this question. Was abandonment my thing? I tried to write it but reached no emotional climax, no closure… All I was sure of was my own apathy.

Flying bugs scare me, but that fear is temporary and you can end it in one of two ways: you get stung or you kill the bug. Not much creativity needed to complete that journey.

I considered fears I’ve had or experienced since childhood – the ones that left scars. For a long time I thought I was afraid of death and dying, but it was far more horrific than the existential nature of it.

When I moved to my grandparents’ home in Puerto Rico, there was a period when there were several deaths. To be fair, a good portion of the homeowners were retirees, so it was natural that some would die off. I even recall that, in one case, there was a terminal patient and a mercy killing--my very first murder/suicide. 
My grandmother never quite took the time to explain what was happening, and made death akin to a long sleep that we never wake from (but I was a toddler and never was not in my vocabulary). Try explaining zero to a two year old and see how long you can keep your own sanity! She did not think it was something I’d be too curious about and once suggested that an old fellow I’d befriended – with a granddaughter around my own age – had died from swallowing gum (a white lie she invented to give me an incentive to stop swallowing gum).

Funerals and the novenas involved were a social event, and not having the benefit of a babysitter, she took me with her to each one. I think I had seen or been in a room with a cadaver more than I had seen television by the time I started school.

Death did not scare me. A big sleep was not scary. The problem was some throwaway comment Mami made when I asked where the dead went to sleep – because I noticed that they were taken away after the prayers were over.

I had not seen nor been witness to burials, so the question remained what was done with the remains. Mami did not think I could handle the idea of burial, so she told me they closed the casket and threw them in the ocean.

And that’s where the fear began.

I began to have nightmares about being trapped in a glass box, but the glass was opaque and could not see out--not clearly, just patterns of light. I knew the swaying of the waves and the feeling on the box sinking. I also knew what drowning felt like, the panic and horror of gasping for air and finding the dreaded wetness wouldn't allow it. All this I experienced in dreams but could not articulate clearly so she'd understand it was her that brought me to those nightly terrors. Soon enough, even that was muted in my head. It evolved.

Of course, I have avoided closed, cramped spaces since. I grew up in an island and do not swim because I always had a healthy respect for the water and its ability to make me sleep long…

But that never stopped me from doing death-defying things in my teens and twenties. Nor have I obsessed with death and dying as the decades piled on me.

So, can I write about my fear of death? It turns out, other than one instance in 2001 when I was struck with a sudden existential angst that gripped and shook me deeply for almost two minutes, I rarely think about it. I accept its inevitability and when the probability of it arriving sooner rather later comes up, it doesn’t stir me.

That leaves me with snippets of emotional context for a scene or two in a larger story, but not the meaty idea of writing what scares me as the foundation to some foreshadowed emotional catharsis.

So I began searching for things that scare most normal humans: Darkness. Change. Aging. Silence. Poverty. Failure. Rejection. War. Pestilence. Most of these I can surpass and have. I have not added political fears because I firmly believe those can be overcome, even in the face of blatant corruption. I fear not lies for truth always finds a way to shine brightly.
Then it hit me! Fear is losing control. I define control simply as having my wits. Control means mastery of language and memory. The enemy then becomes dementia.

I have the story cued, waiting for me to tackle it. Every time I try, it swallows me whole and leaves me floundering on the side of a surreal road in my head. At least for today, I lack the courage to write scared. (On the other hand, the anxiety just thinking about it should make for interesting nuance when I am ready to let the words flow.)

To be continued...