The Writer’s Relief

Relief of Egyptian scribes, via

Every time something terrible happens to me, I think, ‘well, at least this would make a good story.’ In fact, the worse the something, the better the story. It’s the writer’s relief.

When my kids ask for stories from when I was a kid, it’s the bad times I come up with. Breaking bones. Getting in trouble. Making mistakes. All the negatives of my life are what have developed into memories in my mind. It’s like a sculptural relief, where you carve all the negative space away and you’re left with a raised picture. That’s what my life is, in hindsight. Years carve away the pain and all that’s left is a story.

This seems the way with stories in general. They need to have drama, or conflict; ie the person in them needs to be having a terrible time. Nobody tells stories about normal days when everything went fine. That would be boring. The Ramayana is Rama having a terrible time for decades. One format of the story is Valmiki telling the story to Rama’s own children, who haven’t even met him. That’s how long things went bad for that family. His children only knew their father from the bas-relief of his exploits. Sometimes I wonder, what if Rama had simply become King of Ayodhya at the appointed time? What if the Buddha had remained a prince? What if the prophet Muhammad didn’t fast? Would their stories even last?

I often think of Jesus taking what the Romans must have thought was the biggest L in history, being crucified like a common criminal. They wrote ‘King Of The Jews’ above him as a mockery, poked him in the side, and forgot about him. But look at him now. There’s crosses everywhere. The sign of his humiliation has been the signifier of his rise. More than his teachings, his torment made the story of Jesus Christ. That’s the power of stories. They turn blood into wine.

Pain is the paintbrush of history. Pain is the primeval feeling, our most definite contact with the world. Pain is the first amoeba bumping into something and feeling, ‘shit, that ain’t right’. Pain is the first conception of a story. Rocks and atoms have been bouncing off each other quite violently forever and not saying anything. Pain is that first idea of separateness, the first perspective that gave rise to the first story, written inside. The germ line is a story line, written in RNA relief over geological time. That story is ‘no, I want these atoms to stick together, and I want them to go from here to there, and God damn it, that’s the story of my life.’ Many versions, but the same story. It’s not just that life is a story, the story is life.

The only trouble with this whole theory is, well, I lied. Every time something terrible happens to me, I never think ‘this would make a good story’. I always think ‘this is terrible’, ‘why me’, and ‘why can’t I go back to when this wasn’t happening?’ Like a rock, I don’t especially want to be chiseled. Like life, I don’t want to die, and I don’t want the people that compose me to die. It’s only later that someone walks by and says ‘nice rock’ or ‘nice life’. At the moment, when life is hammering blows down upon you in a way only she understands, you just want it to stop. You want to get back to doing nothing, to being boring, to being forgotten in time. Getting out of this story is the only thought that crosses my mind. Like now.

Lately I’m in court a lot, or my family is crying, or I can’t read the newspapers, and everybody’s dealing with terrible shit all the time. Our uncle was killed and they’re still killing him six months later, so it’s hard. Is this a story? Yes, a big one. It’s a literal TV story in Sri Lanka, a prominent murder, a young, beloved man cut down in his prime, a cover-up, a family trying to find out what why. There’s certainly an appetite for this story in the local press but, as mentioned, I just find it completely infuriating and traumatic. Like any character in any popular story, I’m having a terrible time. I just want out.

For the first time I’m on the other side of popular entertainment, and it’s horrifying. So many dramas are about murders and injustice and the worst genre, of course, is true crime. That genre replays the morbid details of someone’s last day and the worst days for their families. And this is somehow popcorn time. This is the sort of thing that we watch for entertainment, to unwind. People (sometimes fictional) having the worst days of their lives. Now that I’ve been on the other side of the screen, I can’t look anymore. Why watch a crime drama? That’s my life.

At a time when something terrible is happening to me, I should be thinking what a story it would be. How I could at least get some good writing out of misery. But I’m not a writer in this context, I’m a character, and for characters there’s no relief. We are the relief, the figures etched in stone, in words, or in memories. We are the pain on the paintbrush, the blood become wine, the strength that someone else remembers, but which just feels like getting crushed at the time.

Maybe these will be memories for our children, or just tragic and interesting in someone else’s book. Maybe it means something. I don’t know. I’m stuck on the wall and cannot see myself right now. Maybe time will give some depth and distance to these feelings, but for now it’s all very immediate and 2D. I’m going through a terrible time and I just feel terrible. Writer’s relief is real, but in the moment, it’s not much relief at all.