In his lectures, the poet Marvin Bell likes to say the writer needs “an ice chip in the soul.” It’s the ice chip, the inhumane humanity that lets the writer look at the unpleasant truth, tell a story about it, then still sleep at night. It’s hard to imagine Marvin, one of the kindest men you could ever meet–as being so ice-chippy, but some of my favorite writers have the chip in more of an ice-block formation–Flannery O’Connor wouldn’t have managed “Good Country People” without it, and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle could never be other than its desolate self. And that’s always seemed all right to me.
In writing Jacob Wrestling, I’ve been uncommonly mean to my characters. The ugliness they undergo is just this side of plausibility. I may even be approaching O’Connor’s levels of unkindness. And going “there,” into the face of the ugliness we all hope to avoid in our own lives, can be a little tricky. I feel a bit like an overwrought method actor admitting it, but I’ve been sleepless, having nightmares when I do manage to catch some REMs, feeling queasy when I write one more rotten thing to happen to one of my characters. However much I’m physically impacted, I assure myself that it’s just on paper. Cruelty to someone who’s not really a person–who only exists on paper and in my head–doesn’t fall under the category of real meanness, right?
But the recent week’s been a strange one: some people I love have had uncommonly rotten things happening in their lives. Not just slightly bad, but deeply bad. Ice-chip-in-the-Universe’s-soul bad. And sitting in front of a pile of revision notes, my mind dominated by the reality of not-on-paper, not-in-my-head but actual people suffering is a very different thing. I’m sleepless, nightmared and queasy all over again, but in a stronger way, and for the people I care about.
In light of all this turmoil, I started having a bit of a crisis about my story. What’s the point, or the justification, at least, of all the ice? I absolutely think I’m telling a story that’s important. I wouldn’t put so much of my time and myself into it if I didn’t believe that. My real question was whether I could accomplish the same thing and achieve the same impact without being so…unkind. Even if taking the ice-chip out of me can’t help the people I care about in a direct way, could it be some kind of net gain in the universe?
About the same time as all this storm and stress, I began reading, on a serendipitous recommendation, Rebecca Brown’s The Dogs. The book started out in a way that was almost sweet. Then got a bit hazy, then dark. Then about as dark as the psyche can handle. Then worse. As often and as terribly as Brown roughs up her protagonist, her reader remains intact. The emotional result is cathartic–something like what the Greeks must have hoped for with their “pity and terror” obsession in dramatics. It constituted something like that net gain I was looking for.
So I’m back to the story as it was. Dark, hard, troubling, painful. But now, in Brown, I have another model to aim for: the cathartic. I hope it’ll be enough.