Writing violence, writing compassion

I learned to read with Navy warships just a few blocks from my family’s quarters on the base in Philadelphia, then moved to the Philippines just before the Vietnam War, where I played inside a barbed wire-enclosed military compound near Quezon City while American Bandstand, Combat! and The Flintstones appeared in black and white on our family’s television, and a TV personality called Uncle Bob showed pictures of American children who’d been kidnapped by Filipinos. I learned there were threats you could talk about outside the gates, poverty was to be feared, and the guys in uniform who took care of you could be dicey, too—especially when drinking—but we didn’t talk about that.

With this experience deep in my memory, and observations of violence in American culture later in my life, I wrote Toy Guns, a collection of ten stories in which the characters—most of them girls or women—deal with the consequences of abuse, militaristic thinking, and guns that are far too handy. The book won the 1999 Willa Cather Fiction Prize from Helicon Nine Press, but people who read it and knew me said they could hardly believe the stories came from such a nice woman.

“You have to be careful what you let loose in the world,” said one very dear friend. So I worried: Did writing about violence perpetuate violence? How could I represent myself as a compassionate person and tell disturbing truths? Were these truths rock bottom personal and experienced, or were they constructs created from reading work of Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Flannery O’Connor? Did fiction have to be conflict driven? Could readers be engaged by stories in which people generally behaved themselves, and weaponry did not appear?

These questions blocked me for a long time. I did not like being the representative for disturbing and violent stories. I recognized the truths in my stories, and I liked crafting suspense, but I didn’t want to live in the vision. In the aftermath of Toy Guns, I often wrote badly, trying to find a new vision and voice. I tried humor in essays and stories about people’s relationships with nature and women’s relationships with men. I floundered for models, joining the fans of Alice Munro, Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison. I admired these writers, tried on their styles, but found them alien.

In my continuing writerly journey toward a second published book, I’ve written and written and revised and revised and revised. My new short story manuscript, Women Who Sleep With Animals, has evolved with my aging. My novel-in-progress, a story loosely based on my great-great aunt’s experience as a schoolteacher in an 1889 Montana mining town, has taken me deeper into characters than I’d been before. I’m still reacting to the preoccupations of Toy Guns in many ways, as the bombs go off in Afghanistan and Iraq, and shootings occur on campuses, in Seattle coffee shops, and at Ft. Hood. I have to focus on truths in my characters and culture, but I also wish to move my readers, my characters, and myself toward forgiveness and compassion. As in life, it’s not easy to do.

–Lisa Norris