This past week I took a risk and wrote a short story that I’d been thinking about for some time but had been reluctant to tackle. The story, Novocain, dealt with a subject no one likes to discuss: the sexual abuse of children.
Several years ago, a longtime friend shared with me that she’d been sexually abused as a child. I remember my feelings of shock and revulsion that anyone could have subjected my friend to such horror when she was just a little girl. I knew her parents – or so I thought. Yet I never suspected that my friend had endured the emotional pain of sexual abuse during her childhood. But she did – and years later it still continues to affect her. My friend is a happy woman. She has a good life, a loving husband and children, a rewarding career. But the memories linger, and she felt the need to share her secret with me.
Some things never go away.
If you’ve read any of my flash fiction or short stories, you know that I generally write quirky little things. While on occasion I may tread ever so lightly into more serious territory, it is always a quick journey; I’m in and out before you know it.
Novocain was different.
There was no science fiction element, no fantasy, nothing humorous or freaky. Instead of my favorite destination, a trip into the Twilight Zone, Novocain was a trip into real and unhappy past events.
Wally Lamb, the author quoted above, is one of my favorite writers. I’ve just finished reading his book, I Know This Much is True. During my reading of the novel, I was struck by how often the events of the past continue to intrude into our present-day lives. I can say with certainty that my own past continues to affect my present in both good and bad ways. The same is true of the friend I mentioned.
Lamb believes that the stories we write are written because in some way we need to write them. I think that’s true with my writing of Novocain.
The story was written in response to a weekly challenge in which I participate, and I was given several prompts in the form of words and phrases to incorporate into a story. Generally, those prompts lead me down sci-fi avenues and into flights of fantasy. But this time, I felt compelled to use the words to address my friend’s tragic experiences. I felt the need to tell her story with a light touch. I also needed to consider why a mother might look the other way when confronted with the suggestion of abuse.
I combined my friend’s past with a seminal memory of my own mother’s unhappiness early in her marriage, and the stress that unpaid bills and family pressures placed on her. Using creative license, I fashioned a situation that allowed me to sympathetically view my friend’s experience and, at the same time, explore the feelings of a mother caught in a situation over which she feels she has little control – and no escape from.
Lamb is correct. I did need to write that story. I wrote it for my friend, but I also wrote it for my mother. It’s my way of coming to grips with her past unhappiness, and how it often made her seem timid and ineffectual.
Lamb says he writes fiction as a means of moving beyond the limits of his own existence. I’m struck by how closely I identify with that rationale. I’m willing to bet money that most of us take up writing as a way of venturing beyond the limitations of our own lives and experiences. We human beings are curious animals; we are also empathetic. We are driven to understand, to comprehend, to relate. Fiction empowers both the writer and the reader to push past the limits of our own understanding. Through the sharing of our stories with one another, we relate to each other. We move beyond our singular experiences.
We become more than who we are individually.
In writing Novocain, I touched only briefly on what the child experienced. My focus was the mother. I think my need to understand how a mother might look the other way when confronted with a hard truth compelled me to write the story from her point of view. I needed to comprehend something that seems incomprehensible. It was a stretch for me to try to understand, to relate to this woman. That’s where my mother’s past unhappiness came into play; it allowed me to look at the abuse from the point of view of an overwhelmed, unhappy woman, and one most likely in the grip of depression.
Because I couldn’t bear to let Novocain end on a tragic note, I tried to leave room for hope. In my story, the mother seems to understand she cannot ignore her daughter’s claim of abuse. She decides to take action, but one has the uncomfortable feeling that she is teaching her daughter to avoid problems rather than confronting them head on. It is my story, of course, and yet even I wonder if that mother has the guts to confront her child’s abuser… or whether she will simply cover things over, and merely assist her child in avoiding future contact with the perpetrator.
For this woman, to take positive action and confront her child’s abuser would be going against her own timidity, her own fears. It would require that she have the heart of a lion… it would require that she be willing to risk a tidal wave.
I left things open at the end. Each reader will bring their own thoughts and feelings to the story, and decide which way they think the mother will go: will she remain timid, choosing the safest of choices, or will she finally stand up for her child and herself?
Do you have any feelings about Wally Lamb’s remarks about writing? Have you taken experiences from the lives of others and combined them with your own memories to create a story? Do you think it is through our stories that we relate to one another, and transcend the limitations of who we are individually? Do you have a particular favorite among your own stories that touches on any of the remarks made by Lamb?