For parents’ weekend, my English teacher collected stories from our creative writing journal and assembled a photocopied handout for parents. I submitted a story about a bereaved man who decides to take a bottle of pills and end it all. He wakes up and thinks he’s in heaven—everything is white and glow-y, warm and fuzzy—but he soon realizes that he’s in a hospital and that he failed to kill himself. He feels depressed about this, of course, but concludes he shouldn’t try again.
My roommate’s mother read this, noticed a few Dungeons and Dragons guidebooks in my bookshelf (always a telltale sign), and immediately came to the only logical conclusion: her son’s roommate must be on the cusp of a nervous breakdown or, worse, suicide. My roommate assured her that this wasn’t the case. It really wasn’t. I remember being plenty angry and frustrated in high school, but suicidal—no.
My imagination has always tended toward dark subject matter. I’ve always been fascinated with the unknown and the gloomy. It’s strange how, even as a teenager, I was getting the message that if you’re thinking and writing about grim topics, something must be wrong with you. This didn’t deter me. I’m still fascinated with violence, sadness, and grief. I always will be.
In preparing a blog post for my Creative Writing class recently, I came across this quotation from Tobias Wolff. It says so much about why writers continue to explore dark subject matter: “So many of the things in our world tend to lead us to despair. It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it’s one of the affirming arts . . . A writer may have a certain pessimism in his outlook, but the very act of being a writer seems to me to be an optimistic act.”
Perhaps, writing about suicide in 10th grade was an optimistic act, if fairly pessimistic subject matter? I don’t know. I just remember being entertained by that story, by loving the irony of my character waking up and thinking a hospital was heaven. It never occurred to me that it might be taken so seriously.