Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What we don't know

In prepping for a recent class on getting students to come up with ideas and ways to develop story from a factual base I thought of a couple of news items from recent years, that had pricked and held my attention. They were both news items that had interesting details, but the most interesting - and personally resonant - facets of them were how they highlighted what we don't know, and the emotional and psychological power in that gap in our understanding. Writing is as much about trying to speak to what we don't know, to find some sense or at least symmetry or justification - a language to speak to it in - as it is about what we do know.

The first item was the story of Oscar the cat, from a nursing home in Rhode Island in the USA. Over time Oscar was observed visiting patients and getting close to them in their last hours. He seemed to show the ability to discern from all the ill and dying patients who had the least time left. Articles have been written about the possible whys and wherefores of his behaviour, such as Oscar is able to detect ketones, which are biochemicals given off by dying cells. On a story level I'm not so much interested in the science but the 'what-if' factor, always embedded in the concept of what we don't know. I must admit the first time I read this story that my imagination left me awestruck, wondering (on an emotional level) if Oscar was moving between two worlds, the living and the dead. I had scenes from the movie in my head in seconds. The unknown is such an enormous room for the imagination to bounce around within.

On a sadder note, the other story I was recently reminded of when putting together my class notes was this one, the story of Richmal Oates-Whitehead, a woman who told a harrowing narrative of destruction and solace on the day of the London bombings in 2005, when she had been caught up in the carnage happening right outside her office's door.

She told of treating 12 injured people, or boarding the destroyed bus and seeing 'body parts.' Administering and consoling the injured. She was quoted in the media, interviewed, praised.

But, as later came out, the whole tale was a fantasy. In fact her apparent medical degree and (clinical) career was an invention. She was an administrator, who had trained to be a radiation therapist. A troubled woman, she was found dead only weeks later. No one else was sought in relation to her death.

This story, like the story of Oscar the cat, has a hole running right through the middle of it. A why, a how, a what does it all mean?

Oscar's story potentially suggests a metaphysical dimension, beyond the physics. Or maybe its just about smell, and ketones. Richmal Oates-Whitehead's 'invented' history suggests psychological splitting and need that overpowered her.

A lot of stories involve a retelling of known events, designed to bring order to our perceptions of them, or to get inside what we know and look for human resonance. Or perhaps to pay final respect to those involved. An example of this would be 'Out of the Blue,' the film of events in and around the Aramoana massacre in 1990. Though even though the events are known, the motivations are still a hole in our understanding.

So with the old adage of 'Write what you know,'  we can add: 

'Write what you don't know, or what you don't understand about what you know.'

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