Would We Lie To You? When Real Life Resembles a Disney Movie

[Another entry in the ongoing blog "Would We Lie To You?: News from the Non-Fiction Career Lab"]

By Katie Pakos Rimer

In the Non-Fiction Career Lab we have been reading about what makes a good story: a "hooky" first paragraph, a sympathetic narrator, a sense of rising action, a crisis point, some sort of resolution, and some falling action or denouement (see Jack Hart's StoryCraft for more).

The formula is so simple I can diagram it in my notebook, like a bell curve with the high point (crisis) occurring about two-thirds of the way through the curve (for those of you into statistics, I know this is actually called a shark fin curve). I sketch ideas from my own work onto the bell curve, mapping out my plot points and figuring out which characters show up when. My bell curves are pretty to look at; the formula is buoyant, and tidy.

But then I have to go write the piece.

It turns out the choices that determine which plot points make it onto the bell curve and when, are critical. In fact what I need to do before I even sketch out yet another pretty bell curve is to identify the reason I'm writing the story in the first place! In narrative nonfiction, simply stating the facts isn't enough. As my NFCL colleague Sari Boren wrote so eloquently last week, we writers have to make choices about what themes our stories are going to emphasize, and which themes we save for other pieces. This means highlighting some details, and leaving others out.

Here is a real-life example from my own work.

I'm working on a story now about time I spent just after college in Bogota, Colombia, studying public health. Today I am a hospital chaplain who regularly works with people at the end of life, and I write about spirituality in medicine. To be honest, dear reader, I don't know why I am writing this particular story about this incident in Bogota. The truth is that I have the persistent sense that the story is asking me to tell it; it's prompting me. But it's pretty vague. So I want to write the story but I haven't figured out why, and how I'll use it once it's written. Lo and behold, not knowing why I'm writing it makes it pretty hard to make those choices about plot points and timing.

Here are the facts of the story:

  • My colleague Padre Manuel asks me to come with him to visit a "sick woman."

  • I, studying low-income public health, am interested in medical cases, so I agree to keep him company.

  • We walk a mile through the dusty barrios and enter a 2-room shack with a 37-year-old woman reclined on a couch, very obviously dying from advanced cancer. I am shocked and unprepared to see her suffering.

  • The woman's mother falls to her knees upon our arrival, and shakes her fist at the sky and tells the priest she is cursing God for taking her daughter.

  • I sit on a small couch and press my leg into Padre Manuel's to give me the strength to stay in the room. There is nothing I can do to help. Tears stream down my cheeks.

  • Suddenly, a snow white, baby bunny hops into the shack. No one in the neighborhood has seen this bunny before, and everyone lives in close proximity and knows everything about each other.

  • The dying woman stops moaning and the mother gives her the bunny to hold. She smiles.

  • The tension breaks in the home; Padre Manuel blesses the woman and her mother, and we leave the two women cuddling the bunny.

  • When I walk out of the shack I burst into tears and yell at Manuel for not preparing me better for this intense visit.

  • I learn that the woman dies two days later.

What a story, right?

In some ways this is a straight-forward and tragic story, about a young woman dying prematurely from cancer without adequate treatment. I could imagine using this story as a commentary on the disparities in international health, highlighting that this woman didn't even have access to pain medication.

But the story has personal import for me, too. I could tell the story from my own perspective: I had never seen someone suffer so abjectly, and it was traumatic to be there and have nothing to offer her that would make her feel better. Her mother's emotional suffering felt as intense as the daughter's physical suffering (this could be another theme I could organize the essay around). Today my job as a palliative care chaplain is essentially to accompany people in their suffering, but this incident was a crash course that caught me completely off guard. I could use the story to explain how I moved from that traumatic experience to doing what I do professionally, today.

But OK, reader: what do I do about the bunny? As my NFCL colleague Molly Howes points out to me, the bunny seems more Disney than real life. And yet it really happened. And it really helped us all get through that moment. So, is this story about unexpected grace during suffering? Is this a feel-good story that says, "Don't worry, when the chips are down God will send you a bunny?" But the woman still died, right? And she surely had more miserable moments after we left. So how important to this story is the bunny? If I'm writing the story to comment on international disparities in access the healthcare, the bunny is not important, in fact it might detract from my cause ("We mortals need not worry about disparities in global health! God will send white bunnies!"). But if I'm writing the story to reveal my own process both in the moment and beyond, professionally, the truth is that the bunny is important. The mysterious presence of the bunny helped me, for one, get through those horrible moments; it broke the tension. Reflecting on it, if I'm honest, gives me the courage to keep doing the work I do today (by the way I haven't seen any white bunnies since).

Do I want to share my personal theological understanding of the bunny? Is this what motivates me to write this story? Is this why the story wants to be written through me? What do I hope will be the impact of this story?

At this point, I have several bell curves sketched out for this one story. In one, the bunny is just past the apex of the curve, but the story is about my experience. In another, the mother on her knees is at the apex of the curve, and the bunny isn't on the graph. Which one feels truer to story that is pressing in me to be written?

I do not doubt it will be a "good story" once it's written. The elements are all there. I just need to spend a wee bit more time on the why. I'll let you know when I finish the final draft.
Katie Pakos Rimer is an Episcopal priest and hospital chaplain. She writes about physicians who integrate spiritual care in their clinical work, and about her experience working with patients at the end of life in an urban, academic medical center. She can be reached at [email protected]

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