Apocalypse Now and Then
I remember pestering my dad to tell me his story. I could tell it was big because he never talked about it. Then finally, when I was in Middle School, he told me how he’d watched his father die by Nazi firing squad in his own backyard. His father had been a political opponent of Hitler’s in their small community near Vilna and that didn’t go over very well. My dad’s mother died in a mass grave somewhere – either in a Communist or Nazi concentration camp – he wasn’t even sure which.
He spoke those words with an even tone – restrained. Without a single tear, or heavy sigh. It was what made his story so powerful to me. He told it cold. At night, I would put pictures to his story in my mind, creating a sort of slide show that would replay over and over again as I drifted off to sleep.
On my mom’s side, she and her parents fared better, but not by much. A world war and a Soviet takeover obliterated the life they knew and thrust them into a new existence of danger and intrigue – at least until they escaped to America.
I was well familiar with those stories – no prying needed there. They made their way into our dinner conversation somehow in some way almost every night – usually prompted by a report in the news. As a small child, I turned one of their stories into a heroic mind movie, replacing the characters – my family and others – with talking squirrels. My older brother had nightmares for years, stemming from being caught trying to escape Czechoslovakia with my mother. He’d jump up from bed, hands in the air, crying “Don’t shoot.” Consequently, one of my squirrels had the same affliction.
It’s been odd at times to think that I’m the only one in my birth family who hasn’t had a gun pointed in her face. I’ve certainly spent way too much time imagining what it would be like. I’ve wondered about my reaction both during and after. Speculated as to whether I could act under pressure and do the right, moral thing when push came to shove. I always hoped I would be the good squirrel.
I think it’s that hope, that speculation about circumstance and motive that has inspired me to write about this kind of stuff pretty doggedly – whether I’ve been immersed in the very adult world of spies or have been swimming through the rough seas of an emotional Young Adult novel. It’s the role I’ve taken on since I was a kid: people tell me their experiences and I process them, turn them up, down and around, try to make some sense of it all and eke out meaning.
It’s a beautiful process – like helping a troubled child navigate the loss of his innocence.
But lately, that child has been vexing me and I’ve found myself stuck.
For the first time in my life, I’ve been experiencing a form of writers block. It’s not that I can’t write. I have been writing and editing every day. I’ve just been feeling a bit creatively adrift.
“You need to recharge your batteries,” my husband said. “When is the last time you took a break to exclusively feed your imagination?”
Hmmm. The truth is, I can’t remember when. Doing something for pleasure that might spark my imagination – while I’ve completely agreed with the idea in concept – always seemed frivolous to me. Like I was wasting time.
And I have been in a constant war with time.
But reluctantly, I made the decision to take my husband’s advice.
I could’ve gone on long walks, to the movies, or put a dent in a “to read” pile that has grown as tall as an NBA basketball player, but none of those things were doing it for me. Just thinking about them was burdensome.
I needed something bonzai.
Then I remembered that a character in one of the YA novels I’ve been writing is a huge horror fan. A Walking Dead fan to be specific, and my editor, Kate, shares her obsession with that particular show.
I know as a writer I was not supposed to do this, but I actually wrote in my character’s Walking Dead fixation before I ever saw a single episode. I meant to watch it, and had every intention of becoming fully fluent in all things zombie before finishing my draft, but once again time got in my way.
“[The Walking Dead] has all of your themes,” Kate told me. “Faith, loss, redemption, destiny. Consider it research.”
Someone once told me that a writer always goes home to stir the creative gumbo. Home can be a place – literally. A visit to an old stomping ground, stalking the ruins of a childhood haunt. It can be a bottle of Jim Beam, even if you’ve long switched to Oban or given up the juice altogether. Or a call to an old mentor – the kind of glorious bastard who never lets you get away with any of your usual crap.
For me, I’ve come to realize, home is the end of the world.
Whether it’s Doctor Zhivago, Schindler’s List or a wild west style Armageddon filled with gun-toting rednecks, Dudley Do Rights (or at least Dudley Do Not-As-Wrongs), and of course, drooling, oozing, quasi-dead creatures with a rabid hunger for human meat.
I have always felt a sense of familiarity with the moral dilemmas that true-blue s**t storms can bring to the surface. In that world, gut-feelings trump intellect, muddled, over-evolved dictums on social order and political correctness become obsolete. Yet bonds strengthen. Love becomes cherished again. Evil, no longer shameful to identify. We lose our comforts, but reconnect with our primal instincts to fight, lead, follow, hate, worship.
We stop being so damned precious.
“Nowadays you breath and you risk your life. You don’t have a choice. The only thing you choose is what you’re risking it for.” – Hershel, The Walking Dead
In the rigmarole of chauffeuring my kids to their myriad enrichment activities, picking out paint colors for our bedrooms, trying to make it to the gym, and deciding on meals everyone in my family is willing to eat, my connection to the handful of things – people, principals, beliefs – that have the ability to bring me to my knees had become a bit fuzzy.
I’d immersed myself in all the stuff on the mid-list, as the past year had been filled with the kinds of important life events that can’t exactly be called horror movie awful, but involve careful navigation. Aging parents, a child’s growing pains, a rocky patch in a lifelong friendship. The truth is, I wanted to lose sight of the bigger things, take a break from Reality with a capital R.
In its own, funny way, The Walking Dead – this long, winding narrative about the possible extinction of the human race by means of a zombie apocalypse – has actually come to serve more as a reminder of reality for me than an escape from one.
Thanks to Rick and Darryl and the whole gang, I was able to put my nose back to the grindstone. Instead of another day of back to back zombie episodes (I’ve finally made it to Season 5), I sat down to some edits.
That went pretty well.
Next, I took a look at my epic YA love story – the one that’s really been giving me trouble. It was same-old at first, and I wanted to bang my forehead into my keyboard. But I read on and actually added a sentence or two – good words, the kind that sparkle. Nothing revolutionary there, but a start.
Then I sat down to write this post.