Saturday, May 15, 2010

Feeling It

By Michael

As a kid, I never took pleasure in holding a magnifying glass over an anthill and focusing rays of sunlight on ants. My wife has told me that when she was a girl she once dressed her (apparently very docile) cat in doll clothes and then rolled it down the stairs. I never did that either – though I admit to once harnessing the family poodle and encouraging him to tow me on a skateboard. But I meant no harm. I fought very seldom as a kid, and when I did fight, I fought as a coward, throwing my punches wide so as to avoid bruising my opponent’s chin or my own knuckles and ducking away from the punches thrown at me. I’ve never liked to inflict pain on others and have never liked when others have inflicted pain on me.

But I take great pleasure in putting my characters in circumstances in which they suffer. And they do suffer – physically, emotionally, and mentally from injuries that often are cruel and sometimes are bizarre.

This apparent contradiction really is no contradiction at all. In fiction, after all, pain isn’t real. It goes away the moment we close the covers of a book. Or if the book is very good, it may linger in our imaginations but as a secondary, not a primary, thing. Maybe more importantly, fictional pain – even in the stories that include the most evil characters in the most nihilistic of universes – is ordered according to the logic of fiction. Within this logic, the story has a beginning before which the pain didn’t exist and an end after which the pain won’t exist (except as it lingers). And within this logic, good usually prevails and extinguish the pain or at least the source of the pain.

For me, writing about pain is at once a means of facing it and a means of avoiding it. Fictional pain contains and controls something that in reality cannot be either contained or – in spite of your best meds and mine – controlled. Real pain is inevitable. Fictional pain may seem inevitable, but is not.

So, I love pain. Just don’t make it real.


Sophie Littlefield said...

I've never been in an actually physical fight in my life and I kind of wonder if I'm missing out. I mean, for research purposes. I've certainly come close - I have a fiery temper and I know how it feels to *want* to hit someone, to really beat the s&*t out of them...I guess I call on those feelings when I write my more violent scenes.

Still, I wish I knew what it was like, so I could be more accurate...

Michael Wiley said...

Well, I'm definitely not an expert on these things. I recently re-watched Fight Club and am fascinated by the idea that the experience of having one's jaw broken by a punch could make one feel more alive and closer to the core of existence. As far as I'm concerned broken bones just lead to pain and a desire to avoid repetition of the pain.

(On the flip side, I've done a little martial arts training, and I think there IS pleasure in the self discipline involved in hitting and blocking in controlled conditions. But real fights? No thanks.)

Shane Gericke said...

I'd be happy to be in a real fight if I don't get hurt. Like in the movies :-) Otherwise, forget it. Broken bones hurt too damn much accidentally, let alone on purpose.

Michael Wiley said...

There are times when you can't walk away from a fight, physical or verbal, and times when you -- or I at least -- seek out verbal fights. But even if the pen is sharper than the sword, I would prefer the pen nib pressed against my chest.

Gabi said...

Fictional pain as phantom limb syndrome. Great post except for the dress the cat and dog as skateboard propeller psychosis parts.

Your post reminds me of the "fight" between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones' Diary. I always thought it looked real -- and makes me laugh. Like your post.

Kelli Stanley said...

Great post, Michael--I confess to dressing up my cat when I was seven, but I only subjected her to listening to me read a story.

Animals are so tolerant!!

Let me just say right now that I don't like pain. I've explained that several endodontists, all of whom attempted to ascertain the health of a tooth by a "cold test". They spray crap on your already-aching tooth and if you hit the ceiling in pain, oh--guess what? You need a root canal.

Uh-uh. Not for me. Not in 2010.

Some pain is unavoidable. But whatever we can avoid, we should.

I've also discovered that patients screaming in pain and shouting profanities from a dental chair will convince the most stubborn endodontist to use a different method other than "the cold test" ...

Michael Wiley said...

I do need to note, Gabi, but that this was a Standard Poodle, which is to say a poodle almost as big as a horse (if a very small horse) and that cat sustained no injuries or even, apparently, hurt feelings. That said, I sincerely condemn all mistreatment of animals of any size: my antipathy toward human pain also extends to an antipathy toward animal pain. Pain sucks.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Kelli -- I agree with you.

I've yet to try the screaming test at the endodontist (preferring to pretend to tough it out), but I've been tempted.