If you’ve ever had something really shitty happen to you, then you’ve probably noticed the same thing I’ve noticed.
Well intentioned friends and family, in the course of offering you their condolences, will often default to the same, tired three-word phrase: “I couldn’t imagine.”
I had two miscarriages a few years back, and folks lobbed this platitude (or some variation of it) at me quite a lot. Sometimes they couldn’t even imagine, or couldn’t begin to imagine. The braver among them could scarcely or hardly imagine. But always, there was a whole lot of not-imagining stuff going on.
I came to find this verbal tic rather irritating. Not because it offended my emotional sensibilities, but because it offended my logical sensibilities: it just plain wasn’t true!
Even before the words “I couldn’t imagine” had left the speaker’s lips, her or she had, indeed, already imagined.
Imagined being in my place.
Imagined losing what I had lost.
Imagined feeling what I felt.
Vividly and painfully, even if only for the duration of the moment it took for them to recognize and reject that dread thought, to shove it away and seal it off behind a big, tall psychic wall, where all the other horrible Unimaginable Stuff like car accidents and molestation and bankruptcy and tidal waves lived.
I didn’t blame them; who wants to sit around imagining crappy potentialities, right? People take strong medications or just drink themselves into oblivion trying to avoid this very thing.
But, of course, it’s hard not to drift into macabre fantasies. Even if you’re a rather upbeat kind of human. Every second, there’s a whole lot of imagining going on in this world of ours. And a lot of it involves some pretty unpleasant subject matter.
It’s not our fault! We humans are calibrated for catastrophe. It’s a survival instinct, finely tuned over millennia: the rubber neck, the clucking tongue, the unbidden visual of our own selves smooshed to a pulp that materializes when we pass a roadside car wreck.
Rubbing up against the truth of our own mortality and fallibility, whether we do it in the lives we lead or in the stories we read, is discomfiting. It also connects us directly and instantly with what it means to be human, which is: to suffer ourselves and to observe the suffering of others in the hope that it might help us to know better and be better so that our own portion of ick might be lessened.
This is dark territory!
It’s also a rich, fertile grounds for any writer seeking more meaningful subject matter, or hoping to hit readers on a visceral level and keep them coming back for more.
My question for you, dear writer, then, is this: what thing are you trying most earnestly to avoid thinking about?
What are you too afraid to imagine?
What is the story you hope never to have to write?
Whether it happened to you already, or didn’t ever happen to you, or almost happened, or might happen some day in the future, or none of the above.
Think on this one. Be really honest with yourself. Then go tell that story.
Go tell the shit out of it!
Cause probably, your readers are avoiding this story, too. Probably it’s something big and hard and deeply universal that they can’t even imagine, yet feel drawn toward anyway.
Help them do that. Help them see it. Be the butcher who slices through the meat of that Unthinkable Unthing, all the way down to the sad, chalky bone.
Then, crack that open, too. Find whatever’s hiding inside, scoop it out, and serve it up on a silver platter.
Do it now, and let me know what happens next.