It only took three days. Somewhere between Friday, when the rest of the family turned sick, and one o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, when I finally exhibited the same symptoms, my family had succeeded in giving me the dreaded stomach bug. This proves two things. First, the family that shares together, stays together. This is because nobody else wants to be around them. Secondly, no matter how much you wash your hands, bleach the towels and sanitize the entire house, you are not totally germ-proof. It’s sort of like the health nut who eats well and exercises daily, only to be run over by the drunk driver they can’t control.
As I sat there in the bathroom waiting for the inevitable—hoping and praying that it wouldn’t happen, but knowing it would—I considered something else about myself: as a writer, there are times when I think I’m a little strange.
Here is a hint. Whenever I turn on the news and watch coverage of some devastating event, there is always one reporter who has to ask the victim how they feel. I admit, almost every time I want to throw something at the television and scream, “How do you think they feel?” Another question that galls me is: “What are you thinking right now?” I mean, there in front of the cameras stands a human being, writhing in agony to the point where it takes every ounce of energy to breathe in and out, their mind teetering on the edge of locking all the doors and taking a permanent vacation from reality, and some loser has to ask about how they feel, what they’re thinking. Can’t the reporter look into those lost, desperate eyes and see the pain? Do the questions really need to be asked?
I don’t know what it is about reporters, why they need to be so cruel at such critical moments in life. Maybe that’s just part of the job, part of answering the who-what-where-when-and-why questions that revolve around reporting an event. Maybe it’s their way of trying to Tom Wolfe the story, to put a human touch on the facts. Or maybe they’re trying to write their first novel and seek the words to describe the emotion for their character. Whatever it is, there are times when I think reporters are just insensitive schmucks.
I realize now that I am no better. There I was, cold chills breaking out across my flesh, my joints aching so much that it hurt to move them, and I was trying to take mental notes about what it felt like before everything came out. And as I thought about it, how I could write something like that into a scene, the questions came. Why is someone puking? Are they sick from a virus like they were in Stephen King’s The Stand? Or have they overdosed? Sitting there on a step-stool, my bare feet pressed against the cool linoleum floor, the ventilation fan buzzing above me, I then wondered about famous rock stars who died from asphyxiation: John Bonham and Jimmy Hendrix. Did they know what was happening to them, or did they just ride out on a wave of euphoria?
After it was all over, I also took note of what "empty" feels like as my stomach knotted up, collapsed in on itself, and found nothing left to give.
Truth be told, being sick is not the only time I do something like this. In my world, there is not a day that goes by when I don’t take note of something. Listening is one my favorite tools. People having conversations around me are fair game, as far as I’m concerned. Something said, even the most innocuous comment, can be the fiber for my mental loom. I just take their stuff, infuse my own ideas, and then weave together something different. Watching is another tool. Those poor souls who camped next to my family on Memorial Day weekend had no idea that they were victims to my wandering eye and imagination. Why was that girl going into the trashed-out camper with those two thugs? What was she thinking? How was she feeling?
I know. I’m one pull-tab shy of a six pack. I am not alone, though. There are several writers who throw events into their mental mixers and then whirl it all around until something concrete comes out. It doesn’t matter who the inspiration is, whether it be a mom, a dad, a brother or sister, an aunt, an uncle, the priest, the doctor or the family dog. Sooner or later, people we know (and especially those we don’t) make it into our stories. Though we may not base a character wholly on one individual, we do take a piece of this one, and a snippet of that one, and throw it all into our witch's brew to boil up something more delicious. What is amazing is that people we love still love us. They don't try to hunt us down as freaks and then chase us into the far reaches of the Arctic Circle, trying to kill us along the way.
That writers take note of the world around them is no mystery. Maybe that’s why some of us lead very lonely lives. No one wants to talk to us anymore. I wonder, though, how many writers actually stop to consider just how they feel when they’re driving the porcelain bus. Maybe I’m the only one.