Everything Is Source Material

Everything is source material.

My best friend from college days died a couple of years ago. He was only fifty-three. He wasn’t in top condition, but he wasn’t so battered and frayed that he had acquired the habit of checking with his doctor when he felt crummy. By the time he felt worse than crummy, an infection in his abdomen had progressed too far.
This continues to be a bitter loss for me. Not just because he and I were finally in contact again after an all-too-long hiatus. It was because of the unfairness. He deserved the best of lives, but the years between our time in college and that belated journey to the hospital had included a lot of suffering.

Forgive me that I don’t refer to my friend by name. A name would make it easier to tell the story. It would give you access to a bit of the camaraderie that I felt for him. By the time you’re done reading this you’ll understand why I drape a privacy shroud over a few of the particulars.

My friend was an exceptionally good man. A gentle soul. A get-stuff-done, be-there-for-his-pals kinda fellow. A breadwinner. Unfortunately that made him a target for the wrong kind of woman. It happened twice, and both times he ended up marrying them. They were drawn to him in part because the quality of his character made them feel safe. If that had been all there was to it, no problem. He might have been the balm they needed to heal themselves. He would have been the hero. Unfortunately these women had nothing positive left to give. They could only wound.

I was deeply disturbed when I realized my friend and the first of these two women had become romantically involved. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with her, but I knew something was. My conversations with her over the previous couple of years had left me sensing something inside her was broken, something that should be managed with a regimen of behavioral medication or, better yet, by institutionalization. I didn’t say anything to my friend at the time. I didn’t trust my gut, and failing to realize how bad the truth was, I told myself it wasn’t my place to interfere with his love life. I am sure that if I had spoken, my friend would have told me to mind my own business, and our relationship might have become damaged.

He needed to be able to see it on his own. He needed to have just enough loathsomeness inside himself to recognize that he was bumping up against foulness outside. But he wasn’t that sort of guy. He trusted her. He married her.
A couple of years after the wedding, I wondered why I hadn’t heard from my friend. I asked around. It seemed none of our mutual acquaintances had heard from him, either. None of us knew how badly his marriage had come apart. He had discovered too late the nature of the woman he had wed.

In addition to much emotional abuse, she had beaten him up. He hadn’t fought back. He wasn’t the type to lash out, not even in defense. He chose instead to flee to a distant region of the country. He not only hid from her, but from everyone. He was afraid to contact those of us who had known him in college because we knew the woman as well, and might “let something slip” that would lead her to him.

The damage to his happiness lasted for many years. Hell. The damage to my happiness lasted for years, because I didn’t hear from the guy and that was something I felt down deep. First, because I simply missed him. Second, because, not being privy to the details back then, I figured he must not have liked me enough to keep in touch.
While off in hiding, he met another woman. But he had the same problem of attracting the wrong type and not recognizing it. This second wife wasn’t literally psychotic, but she took his money, was unfaithful to him, ran off with no explanation, and by the time she vanished for good, she had essentially chewed up the remaining years he might have used to start a family.

He would have made a wonderful father.

I can’t do anything for my friend now. Not in the direct sense. He has passed beyond my reach. What I can do, though, is try in retrospect to make his life count.

I write imaginary world fantasy (among other types of fiction). When I was a teenager making my first fumbling attempts at creating villainesses, I inevitably fashioned them in the mode I had encountered in novels and comic books and movies. Now I am cursed with life experience. The villainesses in my latter-day stories may be fictional, but they are not based on fiction.

How well I remember that trickle of dread when I looked up to a balcony on campus and saw my friend arm in arm with his new girl friend. When there is a scene in a story of mine where my viewpoint character needs to feel that sort of awful, inchoate suspicion, I know precisely what mood I am trying to evoke.

I would say it is a writer’s duty to breathe life into the dead. We have the ability, therefore we have the obligation. It is our mandate to transform the coarse, meaningless, rotten, fucked-up aspects of our existence, mix them in with the stuff that inspires or informs or entertains or reassures us, and put all that in a form that yields something that transcends the ingredients.

Everything is source material. Whether I want it to be or not.

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Everything Is Source Material — 3 Comments

  1. I think using what we learn from life experience (both our own and other people’s) in our fiction is what the writing teachers mean when they say, “Write what you know.” It doesn’t mean write stories about growing up in the suburbs and wanting to be a writer; it means use the alienation you felt growing up in the suburbs and the desire you had to create to create a whole character — even if that character grew up in a domed city on Mars and wants to travel to distant galaxies.

    I just wrote a military SF story that is also a love story and incorporates the absolutely romantic notions I’ve seen in several male friends who are deeply in love with their wives. I don’t know if they’ll recognize themselves, but I know who they are.

    And, btw, welcome to Book View Cafe, Dave. Glad to have you here.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Dave. I had some similar life-destroying experiences in my life. The only difference is, I got out alive.

    I hope your friend would want you to use those experiences in one of the greatest education venues we have at our disposal – good fiction – to warn other people about trusting your gut instincts, looking twice at people and situations if a friend is worried for you, and generally remembering that people do not have to learn from experience. They can learn from examples, good and bad. Fortunately.

    Welcome to Book View Cafe!

  3. The other thing to consider is that people have free will. You acknowledge yourself, that you could have done nothing. Your friend’s propensity for toxic women was, in the end, as painful and destructive as an inclination towards needle drugs or Al Qaeda cells. But he chose these paths himself. It is possible that no advice, no relationship therapy, no counseling would have changed things. When you work it all right down to the bottom, people get to do what they want to do.