Monday, April 15, 2013

When Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Large airy waiting room filled with inoffensive furniture and the talk of drugs as if the names on all those commercials were ballplayers and everyone in the room were diehard fans. It’s two weeks before Christmas. A five-foot listless tree sparkles near the entrance to the gapping Outpatient Surgery door. All the doors here are massive capable of swallowing gurneys and wheelchairs, but cut with the narrowest of windows—no more than four inches of wire reinforced Plexiglas. There’s an angel on top of the tree. No one complains about angels in a hospital waiting room.

Four years ago my wife went into surgery. Such things are about as much fun as that scene from The Deer Hunter where the POWs are forced to play Russian Roulette. I’d rather suffer back-to-back root canals where the dentist can’t quite numb the right nerves. My wife insisted on leaving the hospital the night after her surgery, because I looked so awful.

What’s this all about? Why am I bringing up a four year old story?

As a writer everyone struggles to one degree or other to “be honest” with their writing. Honesty in writing is a sort of spiritual goal, a term that might not make much sense at first. What does it mean to be honest in fiction? Granted, I think it’s an odd phrase. Fiction is a series of lies to begin with, a prevarication, an invention. How can it be honest?

The idea I think is derived from the concept that the more closely a depiction of a character or situation mirrors real life, the better it is. When most people drop a gallon of milk on the kitchen floor and it bursts open, they don’t say, “Oh, darn!” Maybe some do, but if the author is honest, a character facing this situation will usually exclaim something a bit more offensive.

This concept extends to deeper, more complex subjects. When trying to instill emotion into a scene, drawing on real life events and honestly portraying how those events made you feel—even if the feelings are embarrassing (especially if they are embarrassing)—can frequently result in a scene that resonates powerfully with strangers. People often share hidden secrets but don’t know it, and having the courage to admit things, even in fiction, makes an unexpected connection that can move readers.

Being honest is not contriving the story or characters, but creating real things—even if those things are invented. There is however such a thing as too much realism, which brings us back to the hospital waiting room.

It was December 2009, my wife had just been taken into surgery and I was left with an hour to wait. A very long hour—hard time, you might say. I had nothing to do but stare at the clock. I decided to do something else. As hard as it was, I pulled out my laptop and began writing. I knew that one day I would need to describe what it was like to sit in a hospital waiting room. I was wasting a perfect opportunity if I didn’t record everything I experienced. That’s what I told myself. The truth—if I wanted to be honest with myself—is that I hoped focusing my mind on words would distract me and make the time move faster.

I was terrified, a bit sick to my stomach, but I began pressing keys.

A widescreen television drones from its perch on the wall in the corner. No one is watching as CNN discusses the holiday shopping season as if it was the stock exchange, speculating on what the lack of buyers will mean to the nation’s faltering economy. The sound is low, but easily heard. It blends into the white noise of the ventilation system that blows with the constant rush of a highway or a passing jet. None of those waiting talk and the library silence is cut only by the brutal violence of the receptionist’s voice. She’s a large black woman and sounds like it. Her candid tone, so bright and forceful rings as callous as laughter at a funeral. She squats behind a shelf of standing pamphlets within a square window cut in the wall and wreathed in a border of white Christmas lights that displays the beauty and charm that only naked electrical wires can. There is a sparseness to the decoration that evokes dead trees and empty offices, a home left bare by the Grinch. A red bow dangles in the middle like mistletoe, a blood red noose hovering amidst the pallor of a monotone desert.

The people waiting sit curled up in seats. Arms folded, heads tilted, wrapped up in blankets of winter coats. Bags are stashed between their feet, guarded by sneakers or winter boots. Magazines and newspapers remain neat, untouched on coffee tables. Several have books that sit abandoned on laps as would-be readers stare with vacant expressions. One well-tanned woman carries a small beige poodle in her arms as she frequently checks the status board. Another large woman in red spotted glasses knits with pearl-white earbuds and a book entitled  “How To Knit,” open on her lap.

Neon light circles the reception desk and recessed lights punctuate the room, but the real light comes from the washed out morning sun that floods in from the bank of windows framing winter trees, the light made sterile the moment it breaches the glass. The air moves, a constant breeze flowing through the space, cool and fresh, but there is a scent underneath, that speaks of cafeteria food, and harsh cleaners.

Sitting in the room it feels like I am falling, the same sensation as the downward swing of a Ferris wheel, stomach buoyant and a tingling like excitement, only not. I’m conscious of breathing, sucking air rather than drawing it.

There’s a clock on the wall behind the receptionist. Round with big numbers and a red second hand, it looks like the same clock in every classroom I’d been in. I don’t know who manufactures these, but they always run slow. They took my wife to the OR an hour ago. OR is the term they use on all these emergency shows—the shows that she watched—and it sounds strange to hear it spoken by real people. It reminds me of her. Everything reminds me of her. After thirty years there’s no part of my life that is just mine anymore. We’ve fused together like two trees, grafted on each other—becoming one. I wait and the feeling is strange. Sitting without pain waiting to learn if half of me is dead. It feels like flooring a car through a fog with no idea if I will punch through to blue sky or halt on impact.

I haven’t eaten. I don’t drink. I don’t walk. I don’t remove my coat, watch the television, or read. I don’t even allow myself to think pleasant thoughts, thoughts of tomorrow or nice memories. Somehow, by denying myself everything of comfort, maybe that comfort will go to her. I envision that there is a finite pool of benefit and my denial will leave extra for her. It might just be that fine grain of sand that makes the difference. It is what I can do when I can’t do anything.

The surgery is minor—if such a thing is possible. Anesthetics alone have been known to kill. Too much of this, too little of that and a perfectly healthy patient never wakes up again. Then there’s the cutting. It isn’t heart surgery. She has a ruptured disc and they need to scrap the expressed fragments out to relieve pressure on the nerves. It sounds simple, something you might use a spatula for, only this is a hospital and nothing is ever simple or without risk.  I spent my youth watching people die in hospitals. Sitting here reminds me why I hate the smell of flowers. The scent of pine brings the rush of Christmas joy; the scent of flowers—indoor, cut flowers—is the smell of funerals. Both scents inexorably linked to the innocence of my youth where all things are giant, primitive, and inescapable. Hospitals are the uncomfortable waiting rooms for death, a medicine scented overture.

When I was a kid, I was forced. I sat alongside my mother monitoring the pain of fear like a spectator at a torture chamber. Now I’m alone, waiting, watching as the giant clock with the blood red second hand ticks wondering what it measures—the time I have left before I see my wife again, or the time I have remaining.

Days of Our Lives is playing on the television now. No one is watching.

Did you notice it?

The italic text is what I actually wrote while sitting in the hospital waiting room. My wife came through just fine and I immediately forgot about what I wrote. Three years later it turned out that a character of mine was sitting in a hospital waiting for his mother to come out of surgery, and I remembered the pages I wrote. I searched the file down and used it as reference for the scene.

Without knowing where I drew my facts and inspiration, my wife read it and scoffed.

“It’s not believable,” she said.

I was dumbfounded. How could she say that? Everything was drawn from real life!

“What’s not believable?”

She looked at me with an appalled, you’ve got to be kidding, smirk. “There’s no way anyone would have a dog in a hospital surgery waiting area.”

“But they did!”

I explained that I saw it. That this older woman walked around with this little dog in her arms. She couldn’t argue with that, but I realized it didn’t matter. She was right. No one would believe it. Even though it was true, readers would scoff just as she did, because sometimes the truth is just too crazy to believe, and when you’re writing fiction there’s a believability bar, a line that you can’t cross or it breaks the all important suspension-of-disbelief. Whether something is true or not doesn’t matter nearly so much as if people will accept events as plausible.

The dog in the waiting room was my red dress in the matrix. It pulled the reader out of the story.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and when it is, the best course of action might be to just accept that and go with what readers will believe. So if you want to include dragons, talking chairs, or flying pigs, you’re fine, just don’t put a dog in a hospital waiting room—because that’s just crazy. 


  1. I noticed the dog, but I wouldn't say it pulled me out of the story. It did make me wonder why it was there, as dogs aren't usual in hospital waiting rooms. But they're not allowed in college classrooms either, and that doesn't stop students and coworkers from sometimes sneaking teeny ones in in their purses or whatever.

    I think the scene was nicely written, and the dog was actually one of those little touches that made it memorable.

  2. Why thank you E.L. chalk one up for me ;)

  3. The dog didn't strike me as being out of place. Maybe my perception of what is out of place was being altered by the fact that I knew it was something you had actually written while sitting in the waiting room... but I think it would be a very nice touch for a work of fiction.
    Of course, if the dog was a huge St Bernard or Great Dane I think it would be a little different!

  4. However, you do make a good point about how the truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction. One writer (I can't remember her name) complained that her memoirs seemed too fictitious and full of coincidences when she tried to get them published as a work of fiction. She even had people tell her that things didn't happen like that in "real life".

  5. Yes, and I didn't mean to detract from your underlying point.

    I think Tom Clancy (and probably several other writers as well) has said: "Unlike real life, fiction has to make sense," or something like that.

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