Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Feeling of Air

Today we have a guest column, brought to you once more by Chicken Vortex. Normally, I'd use this space to tell you what it's about, but he and I had an interesting chat about it after he sent me the link--it turned out that I got something very different out of what he wrote than what he thought he put into it. So, I present it without comment so that you all can interpret its message you see fit; make of it what you will, but I suspect you'll find it worth reading in any event. Below the break, CV's story.

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and writer (1906-1945)

I almost died once.

It wasn’t anything fantastic like you see in the movies, but real life usually isn’t like that anyway. I was 13, I think. It was at a youth activity of sorts. People were playing tug of war (you know the game, where two groups grab onto a rope and pull in opposite directions to see who can drag the other past a certain point first), and for fun they decided to have all the kids go up against all the adults. At the time I’d never played tug of war before, and wasn’t interested in trying, but they pressured me into it in the end. I knew we were obviously going to lose, so I decided to place myself last in line and stay out of the way.

Just like I thought, as soon as the whistle blew, the adults gave one hard tug, and all the youth on my team fell over in a way that seemed almost intentional. When my team collapsed they all let go of the rope, but never having played before (and having expected my team to put up a bit more of a challenge, honestly), I had foolishly decided to wrap the rope around my torso to ensure it wouldn’t slip from my grip, and as a result couldn’t get it undone in time. As the adults continued pulling I became pinned in the back of the group, and while everyone else laughed, I started screaming—both in pain, and due to the fact that the air being crushed out of my lungs was literally forcing me to do so.

I don’t really know what happened next. I didn’t have any friends at this event, and all the leaders were on the far side of the rope killing me, so I was alone. No one could hear me over the noise everyone else was making, and the only air I could get was during the brief moments when the adults had to regain their footing before tugging on the rope again. Soon I started blacking out each time the rope constricted around me. After doing this four or five times, I didn’t regain consciousness.

...Well I did, but not until after they’d stopped. I woke up some indeterminate amount of time later, lying in the exact same place on the ground with my ribcage hurting like crazy and a group of people staring down at me like dumbfounded cattle. One of the adults helped me up, making some dismissive joke about how I had them worried for a second there, and led me over to the sidelines to sit down. No one tried to pressure me into participating anymore after that.

“Whether or not you write well, write bravely. - Bill Stout

I’ve never told that story before. As a matter of fact, not even my parents know about that, and I’m sure if they read this they would have some very concerned questions. That was over a decade ago, however, and I’m fine, though I’ll admit that writing about it still has quite an effect on me. I’m shivering slightly. Sweating as well. This is a reaction caused by a human’s fight or flight mechanism, where the blood in our extremities rushes to where it’s needed most—namely our torso and legs. I don’t know if any of you are feeling that way now as well, but even if you aren’t, I hope you at least know what it’s like so you can appreciate what I’m talking about. Even after all this time I still have an almost corporeal sensation of the pain where my ribs cracked.

I’m guessing you all have stories like this, though, don’t you? Something powerful that you can’t forget. Maybe it’s not flashy. Maybe it doesn’t mean much to the world, but it means a lot to you. I want you to think about it for a minute. Really. After you finish this paragraph, stop and close your eyes and recall a time in your life where just thinking about it brings up feelings that force your eyes back open. Go ahead.

...Did you do it? Did your heart beat harder and the room get a little warmer? If so, good. Do you know what that feeling is? It’s genuine emotion. It’s honesty. You’re a real human right now, and despite all the rules and regulations of good writing, that’s the most important thing. Being genuine is heroic, and it’s all that matters in the end.

“You must write for yourself, above all. That is [your] only hope of creating something beautiful.” - Gustave Flaubert

There are a lot of things that can make writing better, but the same thing can be said about all aspects of life. You want to be a chef? An architect? Some kind of crazy cage fighter? Good. Then learn everything you can, keep practicing, and I have full faith that you can do it. I’ll be sure to bet on you in your next match. But no matter what you do, never, never let the things you’ve learned suffocate who you really are.

Rules teach us how to do things, but at the same time they risk making us lose the most important aspect of ourselves in the process; who we really are. Perhaps a cage fighter learns about figure four chokes and different types of guards beforehand, but do you think that he’s going through those lessons in his head while trying to stop someone from ripping his arms out of their sockets? Do you think I was thinking about the best way to free myself while I was being ripped in half? No. That would have been a distraction. All I was thinking about was breathing. The only thing that mattered to me was the feeling of air in my lungs, and I didn’t care how I got it. Just. Keep. Breathing.

In life we learn a lot of rules. I might even go so far as to say that’s all we learn, but we need to remember that rules aren’t what define us, nor should they be what define the things we create. When writing (or just living), the most important thing for us to do is allow ourselves the freedom to forget the rules. Don’t let the pressure of right or wrong cause you to stop your own heart from beating. Any writer can follow the rules, but to be the absolute best you can be takes truth, and that’s a whole lot harder to do than simply obeying what you’ve been told.

“The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” - William Saroyan

I consider myself to be a fairly even-tempered person, but I do get angry now and then. Often I try to control this, and it ends up simmering far too long for my taste. Something I’ve discovered, however, is that if I don’t try to remain agonizingly calm — if I allow myself a moment away from civilization to scream and go stomping around and whatnot, the frustration I would have internalized like a colony of clostridium botulinum evaporates in minutes.

Allow yourself to be free. To feel real life. Not the gritty makeup of what the world tells us is real life, but your life, then write what you know, the way you know it, and don’t let anyone stop you. It might be scary at first to find out who you really are through your words, but I have a firm belief that as the slag burns away, there will never be a monster underneath. Only a purified soul that you can catch a glimpse of before the world obscures it again, and hopefully when you do, others will get to see it as well.

I like quotes. As a writer, I find that they can constantly say what I’m trying to say in an infinitely better way than I can. So let me leave you with a quote of my own, in the hopes that perhaps through it, you might gain a better understanding of the thing that means so much to me. There are better ways of learning than being torn in half, after all. Thank you, and as always, it’s been an experience.

Do truth. - Chicken Vortex


  1. Maybe it's the noise distracting me, but I can't think of a moment that powerful. Everything's covered in film. I actually almost died once too, but was a baby at the time and so have no recollection of the event

    Part of why I don't write is that it's commonly advised to draw from experience, but I don't feel I have any. There's nothing genuine I can share with the world. Perhaps that's why I'm so fond of viewing any artistic medium as more of a craft; something that anyone can do with enough knowledge and perseverance

    Thanks for sharing, CV. Maybe I can come up with something after some sleep

    1. Don't sell yourself short. While writing from experience is a good idea, it's not absolutely necessary. And even when you don't have the specific experience you want your character to emulate, you've often had one similar. Maybe I don't know what it's like to lose a sister, but I do know what it's like to lose someone close and feel utterly helpless. Find parallels and use them.

  2. Fantastic post, CV. I really enjoyed it, so thanks for sharing!

    I have to admit my reaction to the near death experience was somewhat different, for when I started running through the list, I just started laughing. I think it might be telling of the Aussie male psyche and the amount of dangerous things we seem to get up to (or at least telling of my age demographic in general), but I just think of all of the stupid decisions that nearly killed me (cars, drowning, biking near-misses, animal run-ins (snakes aren't fun) or other, less PC stuff), and chuckle at how I should have known better, or how clever I was for getting out perfectly (mostly) fine.

    I guess it's either that or admit that I wasn't in control, and that sounds a lot less appealing. We just laugh about it later, riding the adrenalin and stress (oh man, you should have seen how close your head was to that pole when you came off! Oh man, that car was *centimetres* away from destroying you! Oh man, you were under the water for freaking ages; I was totally convinced you were gone for sure), and that makes it all better. It turns it from something that was so close from being absolutely horrific into something funny.

    Perhaps the context of where, when and how the events took place are different, but even then, when things happen unexpectedly, we tell our mates about it later, everyone swears appropriately, you laugh, and that's it. It becomes a good story to tell later.

    Anyway, very off-topic, so I apologise, but it got me thinking.

    Awesome post!

  3. A wonderful post, Chicken. Powerful and truthful.

  4. What's interesting is it's not my near-death experience that makes me cringe and want to open my eyes. In that moment, I'm too shocked to properly react, barely able to comprehend what is going on. The memory is foggy, dulled by the instinct to flee which is nearly impossible to recapture in the mind's eye. It is only after the danger is past that the memory becomes clearer.

    No, the memories that make me cringe are my interactions with my first crush. Uggghh... to this day, I shudder when I reflect back on them. In fact, I'm shuddering now. Let's change the subject.

    I think this post illustrates beautifully what writing can mean to some of us. But for me, writing is more of an escape. A distraction from the dull things in life I'd rather procrastinate on. Yes, personal experiences do get represented in my writings, and writing is where I am best able to express myself, but writing is where I don't have to think about who I am or what I'm trying to accomplish in life. This is an option, for sure, but usually writing is where I get to explore other personalities, and the funnest characters to write are sometimes the ones that are the polar opposites of me.

    In short, for me writing is less about understanding myself and more about making sense of the world around me. To quote a robotic character from a popular comedy show about why he's so obsessed with television:

    "TV makes sense. It has logic, structure, rules. And likable leading men."
    - Abed, "Community"

    In writing, there's narratives, themes and an overarching framework. One could say I am constrained in this framework, but it is here where I find my ability to express myself. Rules may not give me freedom, but they help enable me to do something greater than I would otherwise be capable of.

  5. Heh. I can't pick just one.
    I've had accidents that could have killed me. I've had people try to kill me. I've seen people dying in front of me. I've had people try to kill themselves in front of me. I've had my arms covered in blood trying to save a man's life. I've had people spit on my face for no good reason. I've seen my own and my family's and others' lives crumble before my eyes due to tragedy.
    I don't have a flight or fight response to these things. This is my life. There's noone to fight and nowhere to run.