There was a man who lived alone on my street – let’s call him Paul. Paul died recently…he was a nice guy, quiet, looked after his mother when she was terminally ill and looked after another old lady who lived across the road (We live on a street where most of our neighbours are retired and elderly. It’s one of the reasons I love it – no parties until 3am where we live).
Anyway, another neighbour told me that Paul was slowly drinking himself to death; and, as I said, he recently succeeded.
Being a writer is mostly a great time. You get to make up worlds and people who don’t exist and play with them, run them through the mill and see what they’re made of. But it’s a double-edged sword, like with our quiet neighbour Paul.
I can see him, sitting alone in his kitchen every night, staring at a bottle and the silent, silent walls and rooms around him. I can see him reaching for that bottle to try to drown out that silence, then having to do it more often. The absolute loneliness of his life, the spaces he couldn’t fill.
I could be wrong about Paul, of course; he could – and most likely did – have his own reasons for drinking until it killed him. But still the writer in me sees him sitting there, alone, every night and sees the empty tragedy of his life.
Here’s another example: My wife and I had a good friend who died in a light aircraft crash quite a few years ago. (Those things crash all the time, have you noticed?). As a writer, it’s all too easy to imagine her gripping the hand of the person beside her as the pilot loses control and the plane starts to shudder. And to see the rushing trees coming towards her through her eyes, see those last thoughts flash through her head.
And as easy as it to imagine how beautiful a starlight beach is at midnight, the sand rubbing your toes, the infinity of stars above you, that smell of open water and the mist from the surf prickling your skin, so it’s as easy to imagine how it feels to be trapped in a plane that’s being flown towards an already burning building, the Manhattan skyline unrolling beneath you at three hundred miles per hour.
I don’t get to pick and choose what Muse throws at me, and when she does, I feel the responsibility to share that empathy to lonely people like Paul…to tell the stories the way my imagination and experience of life sees them, both the happy stories and the sad: The beautiful beach and the burning building. Both edges of the sword, and both of them cut as deeply when I write.
I’m not complaining about that responsibility at all; in fact I enjoy it. I’ll always try and do the best job I can with the stories I write, because that’s the way I was raised – if a job’s worth doing, then do it well – and I take my writing very seriously, even when it’s just fun and games.
It wouldn’t be right otherwise.