Writing seriously about events that lacerate our souls is another matter. I'm not talking about "blurt" writing, the knee-jerk posts and blogs and what-have-yous that begin to spout even before the dust has settled or blood has dried. I'm talking about something deeper. I'm talking about writing that comes from the heart and the gut, sure, but also from the rational mind. I'm talking about writing based on research, on checked and double-checked information, on careful reflection, on skepticism and questions.
I recently wrote an essay about corvids - crows, magpies, ravens in particular. They are among my favorite birds, and the essay focuses on encounters I've had with them on the North Carolina coast, the high desert of Nevada, a rocky beach in Ireland. Corvids are brilliant creatures, and fascinating to watch, but one day I was witness to a Corvid event that left me shaken. I knew for two years that I would have to write about it, but I couldn't find a way to begin.
In the case of my corvid essay, I realized somewhere along the way that what I feared was not memory of the event itself, horrifying as it was. What I feared was that I would leave readers with a skewed impression of both the birds and of my response to what I saw. So I kept reading about corvid behavior, and about human-corvid interaction, and ultimately I found the key I needed to balance what I wrote.
Perhaps balance is the key to everything. I don't know, but I do know that nothing is simple, and that when we write, especially when we write nonfiction, we have an obligation to be as true as we can be to the worlds we see.
Here are some examples of superb writing, in no particular order, about wrenching subjects. (Many more authors and works have dealt effectively with tough material - these are just a few that come quickly to mind. Feel free to add to my list in your comments.)
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
- Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams
- Dog Years and Heaven's Coast by Mark Doty
- Songs from a Lead-Lined Room by Suzanne Strempek Shea
- Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
- We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese by Elizabeth M. Norman
- Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls