Before the fire, I wanted to be a real writer. I wanted to write stories and books, essays and poems. I wanted to move readers with my words into action and compassion. Now, I just want to free myself of the words and be done with them.
“I’m bleeding,” our neighbor screamed as he burst through the front door.
Bright, red blood was splattered over his face. It dripped from his hand and arm, which he held away from his body at a strange angle. An old dog trotted out next to him, faithful and endlessly loyal to his panicking owner.
This would be the perfect way to start a short story if it was fiction, if real smoke didn’t follow him out of the house in rolling waves. His girlfriend emerged from the dark smoke in bare feet and flimsy pajamas. She ran across the street with a pet carrier and set it down on the sidewalk.
She gasped for a breath of fresh air and yelled, “Call 911. The house is on fire!”
Without waiting, she ran back to the house and a cat started to wail from inside of its tiny prison. A small white paw poked out from one of the holes of the carrier and disappeared back inside. The wailing continued and then suddenly stopped. I understood the cat’s pathetic cries, an innocent victim of its humans’ actions..
It was how I felt at being left with the chubby babysitter of my youth or forced onto the school bus, taking one big step after the other, away from safety and towards the unknown. I wailed back then, just like the mangy cat on our sidewalk.
The neighbors kept running into their smoke filled house in search of the rest of their pets. Logic was overridden in their mad hunt for the frightened cats that did not want to be found. Sirens pierced through the summer air, deafening our pleas to the couple to stay out of the house. Help was on the way, if only to drag the fools out of the burning house.
In the meantime, the old dog flopped onto the sidewalk next to its sorrowful feline companion, patiently waiting for its master to return, being blind and deaf has its occasional perks.
Fortunately, the fire was put out quickly and the bleeding was stopped at the hospital. The pets were eventually reclaimed and all of the nosy neighbors returned to their respective homes.
Unfortunately, the night of the fire, I read an essay by Joan Didion. It was unusual for me to read non-fiction and a surprise how much I enjoyed it until I got to the last paragraph which stopped me cold turkey, dead in my tracks, (insert your favorite cliché here).
“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Words have never chilled my blood as quickly. They spoke directly to my mind and heart and left me with questions that demanded to be addressed, especially in burning light of the neighbors’ home.
What am I doing on here? When does story telling cross the line? Is there a way to write something decent and not sell anyone out? Who have I already sold out and at what cost? I am left wondering as a writer and a person, now what?
I clearly have some thinking to do.