Friday, March 18, 2011

The Writer's Mind

by Sheila Connolly

Several years ago my daughter and I saw the play QED, a play by Peter Parnell, Richard Phillips Feynman and Ralph Leighton, at a theater in New York (it was our "thumb our nose at terrorists" gesture, since we'd never been to New York together before 9/11).  It's essentially a one-man play about Richard Feynman, a brilliant and eccentric scientist who throughout the play battles health problems that will eventually kill him.  I have always remembered a line near the end of the play, when the Feynman character says, "Because I want to see what it's like to die.... If I'm going to die, I want to be there when I do!"

This came home to me once again when I damaged my ankle in Ireland (I promise I will stop dithering on about this, but at the moment the ankle and the cast and the whole collection of paraphernalia for getting around are dominating my life):  there was a distinct moment, after the snap-crunch-pop part, when I took a look at the situation (not pretty) and my writer's brain kicked in.  Okay, this is lousy, but...isn't it interesting?  I almost feel as though I should apologize for not being in dire pain.  I did ask more than one health care professional whether the absence of pain was unusual--and whether I should be send prayers to some guardian angel for sparing me.  But for whatever reason, medical or mystical, the blasted thing didn't hurt, so I could manage to be objective.  At least, as objective as one can be while contemplating a body part that has assumed a contrary life of its own.

Point one:  the aforesaid body part is not supposed to be pointing in that direction (that's as much "ick" as I'll give you).  Therefore I deduce that the solution will require more than a band-aid and an aspirin.

Point two:  I am woefully underequipped with emergency contact numbers and knowledge of official procedures for foreign nationals dealing with medical issues in a non-home country.  Point two sub one:  I have a working cell phone, credit cards, and (ta-da!) my health insurance card (which is more than my husband had), so I had the raw materials to proceed.  And, hey, they speak English in Ireland!

Thus began the Great Adventure, with the Writer's Mind clicking away at a high rate.  Maybe to some people it would seem cold, but I have to say, it's a great way to distance yourself from the crisis, which makes it much easier to deal with.

Somewhere there are people who would collapse into a gooey pile of misery and rant against the unfairness of the universe.  Why me?  they wail.  I have no answer to that, but I am not one of them.  It's useful to know that I don't fall apart in a crisis (aha, more good writing fodder).  Instead I set about solving the problems as they arose.  First, how to get up the stairs and into the car so I can get to the clinic?  Easy:  Husband, drive you the car as close to the door as possible, and I'll slide on my well-padded derriere (okay, lost a little dignity there, but there was no one around to see).  Where to find help?  Husband, I saw a pharmacy at the head of the main square:  go you there and ask for assistance.  And so on.

Like writing a book, scene by scene.  Break down the problem into manageable pieces, and work through them one at a time.  Forget what you think should happen, or the way it would be back home; deal with what comes.  Pay attention to details, not because they're necessarily important, but because they're a useful distraction, and they can fill much of the endless time you spend waiting for the next step to occur.  What do the nurses wear different colored scrubs?  What kind of x-ray equipment do they use?  Ooh, I like those upside-down watches the nurses had pinned to their tops, where they were easy to see and didn't get lost or tangled up in something else. 

The Writer Brain listened to fragments of conversation around me.  The young woman who had been assaulted the night before, and was there with her mother and additional relatives to have a broken finger looked at.  The many victims of sports injuries (have you ever watched a rugby match?  Brutal!), including one who was clearly in shock even to my uneducated eye, and it was no surprise that the triage nurse moved him to the front of the queue.  The older people, brought in by their children, who clearly didn't understand what was happening, couldn't remember the last meds they'd taken, or even the day of the week.  All real and true--and all material for something, sometime.

After we came back home, I told my husband about the Feynman quote, but he didn't get it (and he's a scientist).  But for me it spoke volumes about a deep curiosity about all things.  If you have to die, don't you want to know what it's like?  Would you want to miss the last great act of your life?  If you're a writer, I doubt it.  I know it helped me manage the situation.

You've been very patient, so I'll leave you with a happy picture (while I had two working feet!) from Dublin.  That's me with Molly Malone, aka The Tart with the Cart.

I promise that next week I'll talk about something else, like natural catastrophes.


Diane said...

Your husband didn't get the quote? Really? It's obvious, he doesn't want to be doped to the gills so he actually knows what's going on. And I don't think it's at all 'cold' that you didn't fall apart, but could analyze the whole thing. You weren't in pain, and obviously could figure out logicly what needed to be done. The only thing I thought of when I heard about your accident was "Oh, s**t! Crutches on a plane. THAT is going to be miserable." My daughter broke her toe at the age of 10, and we had to fly to England not long after. She insisted on taking her crutches. Abandoned that thought half way there; easier to walk on her heel. No choice with a broken ankle, though.

Does this mean your heroine gets to break something? Maybe she can be like Nero Wolfe, and have someone else do the leg work, while she does the brain work.

lil Gluckstern said...

I'm looking forward to the book! I've broken both ankles-not at the same time-and it was really annoying. Hope you heal well.

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