Writing from the Heart of My Discomfort Zone
I’m a huge baby about anything scary. I have no idea why people go to horror movies or read violent stories. Honestly, it’s like someone telling me they enjoy eating dirt and offering me a spoonful. Seriously? Whatever for?
Clearly there is a part of the human psyche that enjoys the vicarious adrenaline rush of watching or reading about something terrifying. I do not have that part. And I don’t mind, most of the time. It makes it a lot easier to narrow down my viewing/reading options to a manageable list.
Occasionally it’s a liability, though. When one of my dearest friends handed me Little Bee by Chris Cleave, she said, “You have to read this. The writing is so beautiful and the story is unforgettable.”
Little Bee is gorgeously written, completely masterful, immediately engulfing. Which is why when it got to the parts about why the main character, a young girl, was fleeing from Nigeria, and what unspeakable things had happened to her, her sister and her friends, I felt as if it were happening to me. I’m still slightly traumatized by those images.
“How could you tell me to read this?” I asked my friend. “You know I can’t handle that stuff!”
So when I decided that Sean Doran, the protagonist of my new novel The Shortest Way Home, would be a nurse who had tended to the poorest of the poor in some of the most degraded, dangerous places of the world, I knew I was in for a tough time. I would be researching and writing about the worst kind of horror—the suffering of children.
I called a friend, Julia VanRooyen, who is an OB/GYN with the Women in War Project of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Julia has been to Africa many times, worked in a variety of clinics and hospitals in places like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, areas that pulse with the tragedy and cruelty of warfare. The threat of death, maiming and rape are constant, especially for children, who are least likely to be able to defend themselves or outrun their tormentors.
Julia’s work involves bringing American doctors to help at understaffed hospitals that are often overrun by raped and beaten women and children. I talked with her at length, and then supplemented that with my own research, much of which involved first person victim reports.
I learned more about the gruesomely creative ways in which humans can inflict harm on one another than I ever wanted to know in a hundred lifetimes. Some days I just had to stop and do something else. Some nights I couldn’t sleep or had nightmares when I did.
I think I got through it because I was also learning about the heroic efforts of mothers, fathers and even strangers as they attempted to protect and seek care for tortured children, and about people like Julia who cross oceans to help in a myriad of ways. The world is full of the worst kind of evil. Thankfully it’s also full of infinitely inspiring kindness and generosity.
Interestingly, I ended up using only a tiny fraction of what I learned. The Shortest Way Home takes place over the course of a summer when Sean returns from Africa, during what he thinks will be a brief visit home to Massachusetts. There are a couple of flashbacks to his time in Africa, and in the first drafts I included some references to child rape and torture. Not that many, I thought. I was comfortable with them, and being the overly sensitive baby that I am, I thought others would be, too.
My early readers—my writing group, husband, sister and friends who read my drafts—were unanimous in their dislike of these references.
“It’s too much,” my husband said, unwittingly echoing what others had already told me. “You already mentioned rape before.”
“Yes, of course I mentioned it,” I told him. “Where this character was living, it’s practically as common as a broken limb.”
“Still,” he said, “it’s enough. We get the picture.”
Everyone agreed. Ironically, I found myself paring down the references that had cost me so many queasy hours to research in the first place. Ultimately I think it works just fine, neither whitewashing the trauma and tragedy, nor assaulting the reader with it. As my husband says, you get the picture.
The good and evil in the world, the beneficence and darkness in our own hearts—that’s what stories are all about. For the writer, it’s worth the journey into our discomfort zones.