I’ll start here …
Battoul makes her way around the smashed bus full of sandbags and steps into sniper territory. A man balancing a large box of produce on his left shoulder, cilantro peeking out, is close on her heels.
“Hurry, hurry,” he says. “This is not the time to walk slowly.”
She tries to blend into the crowd making its way over the 300-yard stretch of no man’s land that divides the two Aleppos: one held by the rebels, one by the government.
Every day, a government sniper holed up in City Hall picks off at least a few people. On good days, no one dies.
People call it the crossing of death.
Once, Battoul and her sister saw a 4-year-old boy pleading with his mother not to take him over the bridge that spans the Queiq River, the scariest part of the crossing.
“I don’t want to die,” he said, crying. The boy continued to beg his mother, who was holding a baby in her arms, until Battoul’s sister scooped up the boy and carried him, crying and screaming, across the bridge.
The first time Battoul crossed, she kept replaying all the terrifying stories she had heard. But once across safely, her fear slipped away.
“Life has to go on,” she says. “People cross and someone gets shot and they pick up the martyr and keep going.”
Years ago, after I had completed the first draft or two of Bridgeport and I fancied myself a writer, I attended a writers’ conference at CSU, Sacramento. The first day there was a luncheon with a keynote speaker. Dorothy Allison, who wrote Bastard Out of Carolina and other literary works. During her entertaining (speech? lecture? ramble?) she talked about one of the secrets of the writing craft. We authors and writers steal people. She described how she was in some small southern town putting gas in her car when a police officer parked in front of a nearby building. The officer opened one of the rear doors of his car and very carefully removed a box and then walked into the building. The officer became a character in the novel she was working on at the time. She stole him and that’s what we do. We steal people. We steal scenes. We steal images. We steal and steal and steal some more. Because the reality is this. There is nothing that hasn’t already been written before. There is nothing that we can write, when we write fiction, that can top the reality that is in front of us every single day. So, we steal.
When I have a few minutes during my lunch to take a breath and step away from the computer and the phone and people coming in my office, I read the Los Angeles Times. Today was the first time I’ve done that in a few weeks. The quoted passage above comes from the first article I started to read. As I read the first lines I thought that this was a story that could be stolen. Because, yes, we just don’t steal people, we steal stories. Ripped from the headlines!!!!! What could be better? Right?
Well, no. Maybe some stories shouldn’t be stolen. Maybe there is some reality that shouldn’t be tarnished by a writer’s attempt to improve upon it. Read that excerpt. Read the article. How could I defile the horror these people are living with a wretched attempt to write about a mother and child crossing that bridge? Or two siblings sent by their mother to buy some flour for their bread, chickpeas and lamb for their meal? Or about the 19-year-old desperate to cross to complete his education? Or the father whose job is on the other side and knows no other way to provide for his family? How could I possibly believe I have the right to steal their stories?
I do not. But I so desperately want to write one of those stories.
But why stop there. Imagine the world and the stories of misery and death and horrible things. I moved on from that article and read the rest of the L.A. Times. Here is the grand total of stories that were in the front section. The News section of a major American daily.
1. A democratically elected government, overcome by civil unrest was driven out of power by the country’s military and now the military which ruled the country for decades, has killed hundreds of supports of that government and arrested over 1,000 members of the party that won that election.
2. Aleppo, Syria – divided by the Syrian civil war. Government to the south and west, rebels everywhere else. A bridge that spans the Queig river in the middle of Aleppo. Government on one side. Rebels on the other. Residents have to cross it for work, school, shopping, daily activities of life. Check points on each side. And snipers on the government-controlled side who pick off a few people every day.
3. Twenty years after the Northridge earthquake in L.A., they may just be now getting around to inventorying “soft-story buildings, many of them apartments” that are of the type more prone to damage during major earthquakes. One such apartment complex collapsed during the Northridge earthquake, killing 16 people.
4. A Las Vegas police officer shot and wounded an unarmed man. The review panel recommended that he be fired, but the Sheriff refused to do so. Las Vegas has one of the highest rates of police shootings in the nation.
5. Elmore Leonard … dead at the age of 88.
6. There are 30 homeless people who live in Beverly Hills, most of them remarkably, depressingly mentally ill.
7. Fukushima continues to leak – most recently 300 tons of radioactive water spilled out of a storage tank
8. Musharraf to be tried for assassinating Benazir Bhutto.
9. Britain defends decision to detain the partner of an American journalist who helped reveal the extent of NSA “spying” techniques.
10. Afghan witnesses describe the Robert Bales’ massacre that killed 16 Afghan civilians. At one point, several months ago, the reporting on this story made it pretty clear Bales couldn’t have done it alone, but his plea bargain has squelched any real opportunity to get at the truth.
11. Runaway cab severs a woman’s foot, but, yippee, Dr. Oz was there to lend a hand.
12. A man with an AK-47 in the office of a Georgia elementary school.
13. 3 Oklahoma teens charged with killing an Australian baseball player attending college in Oklahoma. Why? For the fun of it.
Other than the one or two paragraph blurbs that fill such features as the International Digest or National Digest or whatever the L.A. Times calls it. the above list is the entirety of the news stories in today’s L.A. Times. It’s all tragic and representative of humankind’s ability to do just remarkable evil. It’s pretty stunning.