Lake Effect essayist Korinthia Klein has a new novel out – and she struggled with the idea of troubling things happening in the world that she created:
As far back as I can remember, I always thought it would be exciting to write a book. I toyed with the idea on and off for years. It probably would have made more sense to attempt to write fiction for the first time before becoming immersed in child rearing, but the impulse to finally write did not strike me until I was well down that road.
Is there a mother who loves her children who doesn’t live with the fear of losing them? Especially in the early years the idea of something unspeakable happening to any of my babies often made it hard for me to sleep. It was too terrible to contemplate but somehow impossible not to. I wondered about the toll such a loss would take on me, if I would be strong enough to bear it. But becoming preoccupied with such thoughts felt wrong. I needed a distraction.
I'm a person who likes to pursue creative outlets, but many of the ones I'd enjoyed before having children were difficult to do in tandem with my new role as a mother. So I came back to the idea of a novel. I liked the thought of a project that I could carry around in my head and and contemplate on my own unpredictable schedule even as my hands were full with the endless chores of caring for my children. If it took the rest of my life it didn’t matter. I could stop and start it when I chose.
I started out cautiously. I began with a name. From there I created a woman I felt I knew. I made her a marriage I could relate to. I chose her friends and her interests, decorated her home, and created her past. The whole exercise was far more fun than I expected it to be, and instead of it becoming a background project that I could pick up and put down over the course of years, I ended up cranking out most of the original draft in a matter of weeks. I loved writing that first novel.
There is an interesting thing about creative fields, however, that I don't know to be true in any of the other work I've done. Many concepts that would be considered unhealthy to dwell upon in day-to-day life are deemed perfectly natural to focus on in order to make art. It's expected that artistic people will think about death and suffering along with joy and beauty. This is why the arts are necessary in our lives, because they give us an opportunity to grapple with difficult ideas at whatever distance we need in order to help understand them. If you are creating art you can tackle such ideas intimately, and instead of this being considered disturbing it’s embraced and deemed commendable. An actor must imagine pain to effectively simulate it. Musicians, composers, dancers, visual artists, all must delve into the heart of the emotional significance of their work for it to have any meaning or authenticity. Writers who can't get into the heads of their characters to understand their emotional lives can’t create convincing stories.
When I obsessed over the idea of what would happen if I lost one of my own children, that felt ghoulish and ungrateful. But if I were writing about losing a child as part of a novel, to allow myself to wallow in those thoughts and that imagined pain was now necessary and productive. It turned a questionable train of thought into an acceptable action. By simply declaring my dark thoughts to be research they were permissible to have.
So within my story of nice people doing the best they can while coping with mundane struggles, I created a child. She was charming and pretty and adored. I gave her a personality and quirky interests and particular habits and a favorite toy. I loved her. And then I killed her.
I watched as my fingers tapped away at my laptop stringing together words that unraveled the world I had made. I watched everyone suffer and grieve and try to deal with such an unspeakable loss. I saw them weep and wonder how such a thing could happen. And I suffered with them and tried to work through it and move past it and attempt to let it go so that I could get whatever this was out of my system and simply enjoy my own kids who were safe and fine and alive. It was writing as self-help in a way, and for the most part it did the trick.
But I wasn’t expecting the guilt. I now live with the fact that I created a child and that I let her die. I know she is fictional, and I am not pretending for a moment that an invented person in a book compares to someone real, but I still felt responsibility for her. To be able to write her convincingly she had to feel real to me. In my story her cause of death is an accident, but I chose the accident.
As I watched my characters look for answers I realized those answers all lay with their author, and I didn’t have any good ones. They wanted to know "Why?" and I realized how little any of my reasons would mean to them. I didn’t have an answer for "Why?" that they would accept. I had created their lives and could have made them anything I wished. And I wished them tragedy for the sake of my story.
When people struggle with finding meaning in the universe, many end up questioning how a loving creator could allow suffering. If you had power over all creation, why would you allow harm to come to anyone undeserving, particularly a child? What sense is there in that? If a god can do anything and chooses horror either by direct action or deliberate inaction, is that a creator with any decency? Is that creator still, in essence, a good person?
And now part of me is left to wonder, am I?
Essayist Korinthia Klein is a violin maker and the mother of three in Milwaukee. She and her husband, a veteran, run a neighborhood violin store called Korinthian Violins in Bay View and she performs on the viola with Festival City Symphony and on mandola with The Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra. She blogs at Korinthia’s Quiet Corner. Her new novel is called Almost There.