Summer Shift, there’s a young girl who dies at the beginning of the novel after crashing her car into a tree on a winding road. We later learn that the main character’s husband died in a similar senseless way. I was not writing from any personal experience here. Like everyone else, I had come across numerous roadside memorials and had always been struck at the harsh, arbitrary suddenness of such deaths; how tragic and unforgiving. How many times have each of us come within inches and been spared? Why some and not others? And so being something I could neither reconcile nor compartmentalize, I chose to explore the subject through writing, which is what writers do.
Today, a dear friend, one whom I’ve known only a few years, told me she was enjoying my novel, though those early scenes in the book took her back to the death of her own teenage son who was killed instantly when his car struck a tree on a winding road in 2005. My initial reaction was horror, that something I wrote might cause this kind person additional grief. She shared with me a website memorializing her son, and I saw photos of him as an infant in his mother’s arms at the hospital, pictures chronicling his childhood and teenage years, up to the photograph of the place where the accident happened, the tree itself with the missing bark, and the place where his ashes now rest. Having a son about to turn nineteen myself, all this tugged at my emotions to say the least.
I was also struck, perhaps truly for the first time, with the enormity of the responsibility authors have to get it right.
When we write, our brains often allow us to go to places we can’t fathom in our own lives. And as we explore subjects, we tap our empathy and imagine what it might be like to walk in the shoes of others. We do some research. We talk to people who’ve had similar real-life experiences. But as I journeyed through this young man’s life eerily preserved in cyberspace, I prayed that I had not in any way trivialized the circumstances of the accidents or victims in my book., that God forbid I may have reduced such real life tragedy to something clichéd.
Based on my friend’s comments, I don’t think that was the case. I hope in some way I was able to write something she could relate to and, as the story progresses for her, hope that I might provide some insight or comforting perspective on her loss.
But the lesson learned here, and one which I will carry forward, is to be mindful that what may be simple exploration of a subject for the author is inevitably harsh reality for others.