A few years ago, I saw Robert Olen Butler speak on his writing process and tapping into our creativity. During this presentation, he said something that really stuck with me. Writer’s should never look away. I doubt he meant that everyone rubbernecking a traffic accident is a budding Shakespeare, but I heed his advice constantly.
His words run through my head for a couple of reasons. Two years ago, we went to Spain for the first time. It is a country that I’ve longed for from afar … maybe it’s the Hemingway mystique, the brightly colored Flamenco, the musical accents and complicated history. It didn’t disappoint.
We were there during the feria in Seville, a spring festival much like the state fairs we see here. One morning, my husband tentatively broached the subject of seeing a bullfight. I say tentatively because in my younger days I was a card-carrying member of Greenpeace, a PETA-sympathizer and I’m still a recovering vegetarian. My motto when traveling is, “when in Rome.” So, after much soul-searching and pondering, I agreed. We got our tickets, got to the stadium and I had no choice but to not look away.
I’ll spare you the details, but the first fight had me so distraught that I had to blink back tears to not make my husband feel bad for suggesting it. I couldn’t flee, we were packed in there so tightly and wouldn’t you know it, our seats were right in the middle of a section – there was no way out. I had to look, but I didn’t have to look at what was going on in the ring.
I watched the crowd, marveling at the crescendo of their excitement – the white handkerchiefs waving and ole’s on the tips of their tongues. I studied the horn section; realizing that there was no announcer like sporting events in the U.S., instead the music of the horns told the story. And, finally, I looked into the ring.
For a brief moment, I realized why this sport is the subject of such Spanish pride. There on the red clay dirt was a man in skin tight clothing with a scarlet cape in his hand in a choreographed dance with a thousand pound bull. Like ballroom dancers, they twirled and waltzed around each other. The matador leading the dance, the bull with no choice but to follow. The crowd ole’ed it’s approval, and man and bull swirled in a haze of turquoise silk and brown rawhide. I couldn’t take my eyes off this beautiful dance.
Afterwards, I spent some time digesting what I saw. Did I compromise my beliefs against animal cruelty? Maybe, but there was nothing I could do about it. Was I disturbed by what I saw? Somewhat, but those were the moments when I truly did look away. Do I regret that I was there? Not at all.
By not looking away, I saw the beauty in an otherwise monstrous act. That, I believe, is what Butler meant. Writers don’t have the luxury to stick our heads in the sand. We have to look – deeply and directly.
Less than two weeks after we returned from our trip to Spain, I received the most heartbreaking phone call of my life. One of my best friends, someone I had known since we were five, was killed in a motorcycle accident. She was my muse, the person who said to me while I lamented my desire to write a novel someday; “well, why not today?” Before I joined a writers group, before I found other friends who are on their own literary journey, I had Sutton, the only other person who knew the story as well as I did.
I don’t remember much of those days after her death – a ten hour drive with two other dear friends to her funeral, sitting at an Applebee’s bar drinking before noon the day we said goodbye, being asked to speak at the service and not recalling what I said, the return drive home complete with exhausted laughter and reminiscing. No matter how much I wanted to run from the pain, I remembered the bullring in Spain – I couldn’t look away.
After she died, I stared at a finished manuscript for a few months. I knew it was far from being perfect, but I just couldn’t bare to touch it. Could I do this without her? Would it hurt too much knowing that she wouldn’t see whatever changes I made? The desire to write and share my story, a story she encouraged me to write, won out over my own insecurities. I opened a blank word document on the computer and started re-writing it from the beginning. What came out was more powerful, stronger, rawer even than the previous draft. A character that lived with the grief of a long-dead best friend (this is a life-imitating-art-moment as that was in place from the beginning) felt much more complicated and multi-dimensional.
We’re coming to the second anniversary of her death and my grief is still evolving. There are days when I forget she’s gone, there are days when I wonder if she was ever really there, and there are days when I feel her loss like a missing limb.
Rather than hide from my grief, I didn’t look away. Instead of finding something scary and disturbing, I peeled back the layers and found something beautiful.