Sometimes I think being a writer is an excuse to engage in the in-depth study of – everything really. Over the last month or so I’ve unintentionally read two books and watched several movies that illustrated some of the most extreme human behavior imaginable. Both works of fiction are award winning novels. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world where many of the survivors engage in rape, murder and cannibalism. Jose Saramago’s Blindness is an allegorical tale that takes place in an unnamed city and country. It begins when a man goes blind and his site is replaced by a brilliant white (as opposed to darkness). The ailment appears to be contagious and the government quarantines the blind in empty institutions where they are left to fend for themselves. Tyranny, rape and degradation ensue.
Coincidentally, neither book was a choice I would have naturally gravitated to. I read The Road as a concession to the buzz after it won a Pulitzer. Blindness is the selection for a book discussion group I plan to attend this week. While reading both, I continued to wonder whether it’s realistic to believe that the conditions described in each novel could bring about such deplorable human behavior.
I was still reading Blindness when I watched the movie The Secret Life of Words this week. One of the main characters is severely damaged and eventually reveals having been one of fifteen women held hostage, starved, tortured and repeatedly raped at one point during the ten year period of the Yugoslav Wars. When the character recounted her story, I was suddenly awash in images of the Holocaust, the massacre in Rwanda and the genocide in Darfur. When I looked further into how many more incidents of genocide have occurred globally throughout the last several hundred years, I was reminded of more examples than there is room to list here. Sadly, I’ve concluded that art really does imitate life.
But not all is doom and gloom. Just at the point that it would appear the human race is capable of the most base, barbaric acts imaginable, a glimmer of hope appeared in one in a series of Amazon mailers that the UPS man leaves on my doorstep several times a week.
The movie Baraka was shot in 1992 and if you’ve never seen it, I recommend you borrow, rent, or buy it for an experience unlike any other. From Amazon.com’s Editorial Review:
The word Baraka means "blessing" in several languages; watching this film, the viewer is blessed with a dazzling barrage of images that transcend language. Filmed in 24 countries and set to an ever-changing global soundtrack, the movie draws some surprising connections between various peoples and the spaces they inhabit, whether that space is a lonely mountaintop or a crowded cigarette factory. Some of these attempts at connection are more successful than others: for instance, an early sequence segues between the daily devotions of Tibetan monks, Orthodox Jews, and whirling dervishes, finding more similarity among these rituals than one might expect. And there are other amazing moments, as when sped-up footage of a busy
I was able to watch this DVD shortly after finishing Blindness and the movie reminded me that we are all connected, despite the isolation we often feel. At our worst, people can become little more than animals, but at our best we’re capable of incredible beauty.
So where did I end up after all of this analysis of human behavior and of the human condition? I realized that as a human being, I can’t help but be affected by what I hear, see and read about other people, both the victims and the victimizers. It's painful and disturbing and it hits me on a deeply emotional level. I also realized that as a writer, I have to be a student and an observer of psychology, sociology, anthropology and any of the other “ologies” that can help me objectively study the human condition. To tell a compelling story, the ability to attempt understanding of all sides is imperative.
I began to think about the lengths many writers go to in order to immerse themselves in their chosen subjects. Authors have lived in war torn regions, visited prisons, mental hospitals, hospices, disaster areas and countless other locales to research a story to make it as true and as real as possible.
What lengths have you gone to in order to research a story? What methods of study have you employed? How important has research and actual immersion been to your writing?