The far side of Hell
I don’t like horror movies—even squashed bugs gross me out—but I love the movie Flatliners. I love that concept of what’s beyond the beyond.
You know how it is whenever we start a story, how we’re flames alight, burning up everything around us, the very atoms of the air fuel for our creation? Our characters walk among mortals like creatures from a visionary universe. They live and breathe, crack wise, laugh, put a tender hand on our arm. They learn bad news, and our eyes fill. When their hearts break, we’re sobbing as we type. Just sitting around the kitchen table with them all morning talking gossip as the sun crosses the window is as fulfilling as human contact can ever be. Everything we never get from real life is here, in these manuscript pages, waiting for us to wake up every day and join them again.
Fiction is our way of creating a tribe for ourselves.
Then we’ve gotten it all down, and we’re transforming it from our own personal tribe into, well, literature. The first part is about our needs. The rest is about everyone else’s. Now we’re creating a plot, an adventure for these characters, and we’re using what we know about them to tell how they would act in any given situation, to show how they get themselves from one pickle into another, what facility they have for disaster.
We don’t want to do dreadful things to them. But there is that reader out there. And the reader wants our characters to help them understand the turmoil of real life.
So we do that part, too. Then we go into revision. Because we’ve had to combine these agendas—ours, our characters’, and the reader’s—and naturally there are some glitches. This takes innumerable passes. At first we’re drunk on the reality. Then we’re drunk on the power of fiction to speak. Then we’re drunk on the sheer potential for transforming this world that has meant so much to us into something that could mean so much to a complete stranger, simply through the artifice of language and fictional tools. It happens. It really does! We’ve all read books of a beauty to take the breath away. And we too can be among those who walk with our feet in the stars.
“Fiction is our way of creating a tribe for ourselves.”
Finally we wake up one morning and go to our desk and pick up the pages . . . and something snaps inside. And we realize we’re never going to get those words to transform.
Our reach has exceeded our grasp.
By about five light-years.
So here we sit with our faces lying sideways on the desk, feeling the tears trickle ever-so-slowly down to the bridge of our nose, across it, and drop with the most delicate little irritating mosquito-touch from our nose to the desk under our cheek. Our neck hurts, but it doesn’t matter.
Nothing will ever matter again.
This is the point, in Flatliners, in which we have medically anesthetized ourselves to the point of death and just beyond, and we discover—much to our surprise—that the beyond is Hell.
And yet it seemed like such a good idea at the time!
Now, I am not here to act as our medical-student cohorts pulling us back from the anesthesia. I am not our pals reeling us in, waking us from the nightmare, patting everyone jovially on the back, and helping us off the table. “You’re not really dead. That didn’t really happen. Psyche!” Those are not the words coming out of my mouth.
Because I know something about that. I know when someone does that, Hell follows us home.
“And when we are done, we will know something about life we didn’t know before . . . We will have gone beyond the beyond into the ephemeral . . . alternate reality of endless potential we knew was there . . .”
And then we are well and truly haunted. The glaring errors remain and get worse. The stumbling blocks trip us up more and more, throwing us headfirst into the muck and mire faster and more heartlessly every time we attempt that impossible task of transformation. Peer critiques, if we get them, become more random and less predictable. No one can agree on what’s going wrong!
We might stick with it because the hype about Becoming a Writer is so powerful and omnipresent out there, and besides now all our friends are Becoming Writers too. Or because we’re stubborn cusses and don’t know when we’re beat. Or because we have a story we desperately want to tell. Or simply because we’ve always looked up to our favorite authors, all our life, and dreamed with our heart in our throat of the day we would join their ranks.
But the secret pain is crippling. And it is countered only by the numbness of turning ourselves into donkeys plodding in joyless drudgery after that coveted carrot.
I am here to do the opposite: to push us through—because on the other side of Hell is craft.
And we can’t get there by backing out. We must dive forward into the agony—sitting there with our face lying sideways on the desk—and discover within it every reason writing is an inanely bad idea.
Tackle a task we only know vaguely through the second-hand results of someone else’s lifelong efforts? Tackle it with the wild-eyed hope that, although it takes professional writers their entire lives to polish their skills, years to produce a single novel, and the nearly-unlimited assistance of publishing professionals they pretty much lucked into, it will take us a matter of months because, after all, didn’t Faulkner write As I Lay Dying in six weeks? Tackle it with the idea of supporting ourselves, even though the greats almost universally died penniless and unknown? Tackle it with minimal training and experience, barely a smidgen of comprehension, a whole lot of optimism, and the encouragement of people who stand to gain financially by our ambitions? Tackle it with nothing but our bare hands?
We will lie there and sob. Gnash our teeth. This is how we learn to be us.
And when we are done, we will know something about life we didn’t know before. We will know how to survive. We will have gone beyond the beyond into the ephemeral, multi-faceted, tactile alternate reality of endless potential we knew was there—we wanted so badly to believe in—all along.
And then we’ll have something to write about.
Victoria Mixon has been a writer and editor for thirty years and is the creator A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, voted one of Write to Done’s Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2010. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and the recently-released The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, published by Prentice Hall, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. She spends a lot of time connecting with writers on Google+ and Twitter.
Victoria is now writing a column for the Writer Unboxed newsletter: Ask Victoria.
Please join the discussion below.
Beyond the beyond – we saw Flatliners 20 years ago. I’d wanted to see it for years before that – and like you I thought it was a terrific idea. I recall thinking it didn’t quite come off in execution – but this post does, as a parallel to what we do as writers! Terre, lovely to see you’ve welcomed Victoria to your side!
Hey, lovey! Thank you! Yes, there were weird glitches in the Flatliners movie, but I just felt like an epiphany had gone off in my head when I realized the basic premise. It changed how I see life & death forever—truly an extraordinary moment.
Hi Roz, yes, Victoria is a fine guest; and not only do I love this chapter but also her style. “Going Beyond the Beyond” is similar to your Black Dress in that they each read very well as a standalone and each act as an interesting enticement into the complete book.
Welcome, Victoria, it’s an honor and pleasure to have you on CF!
Your description of the writer’s plight—seesawing between suffering and fortitude—is so well-written and full of personality that it’s palpable. O that we each have the courage to reach beyond the beyond before we gnash our teeth to the gums. Thanks so much for sharing this aching, spirited excerpt.
So happy you dropped by, Roz, and thanks for your apt comment!
Thank you so much for hosting me, Terre! I love what you did to make my book look 3-D with the heartline. 🙂
My pleasure, Victoria 🙂
Thank you. This beautifully written piece leaves one with much to ponder for it is very deep.
There is also much truth in it. I will need to read this again to get its full meaning.
Thank you, Marta!
As it happens, Terre chose one of my own favorite chapters from my book as the excerpt for her blog. I can’t even tell you how many years it took me to learn that inside the pain is where the gold lies.
Hi Marta! Nice to see you here. I’m so glad you had a chance to read this, and thanks for the comment.
Thank you, Victoria, for this very powerful post on the writing process. As a memoir writer, I face many times when I wonder if I can keep going. Can I relive that memory or event in a way that honors the truth? I can relate to ” sitting there with my face lying sideways on the desk” . Writing is hard work. I love your messages about craft being on “the other side of Hell” and “pushing forward through the agony so we can learn to be us.”Very inspiring and validating, no matter what the genre is!
Hi, Kathleen! Yes, memoirs have that special twist of the knife that all this great conflict and drama really happened—to you.
I had a very strange childhood about which I someday intend to write. But not today. It takes a brave woman to wade into those deep waters!
“On the other side of Hell is craft.” So heartening to hear it from one who would know! I’m still wandering the eighth circle. This is the best thing I’ve read all week, Victoria.
Thank you, Debra! You’re so right about Dante’s circles. As Nietzche out it, “Poets lie too much. We also know too little and are evil learners: so we are obliged to lie.”
If we’re all going to bumble around here in our own special writerly circle of hell, we might as well be good company to each other!
As Nietsche POINTED out.
I am Typo Woman this week. Two seconds ago I managed to misspell mathematician on Twitter. Twice.
I’m going to stop helping me now.
So you really ‘are’ human 😉
Only too just.
What a wonderful essay! Very inspiring. Really hits home!
Thank you, Barbara! There is so much gnashing of the teeth in this work. . .and that’s what makes it true to life.
Wow! That was really powerful, quite a kick in the teeth – and yet very inspiring. We write because a life without writing would be unthinkable. And believe me, I’ve tried…
I so love this post! It rang bell after bell within me. Thanks so much for the gift you have for breaking the writer’s joy and dilemma down into chunks with just the right twist so we can experience it, learn from it, and go beyond what we’ve been hung up on. Thank you so much!
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