On Writing the Gruesome Details


Perhaps the greatest thing I ever learned about writing came from my parents when I was young. Just five years old, I’d moved with my twin sister, brother, and parents to North Carolina. In those first few weeks, we saw the world through new child eyes. North Carolina was hilly; it was greener and quieter than where we lived in California or Iowa. One afternoon, when my father drove us on those small town streets, he asked my mother if the kids had ever seen roadkill. I don’t remember her words, but I imagine she scrunched up her nose and shook her head laughing.

My father always did strange things when he drove, some of which I did not realize was odd until later. He was notorious for being the “turtle snatcher” on the road; he would pull over any time a turtle crossed the street—even on a highway—and pick up that turtle, knowing nothing about him, and run to the other side of the road, returning him to safety. My brother and sister and I would cheer in the back seat, hooting and clapping because our father was a hero.

Peering Inside

On this particular day, he slowly pulled off to the side of the road, and we all piled out of the car and walked toward the quiet place in the middle of the street where a dead possum lay squished.

“Look at his guts!” Cooper said with wide eyes. He cooed more about the patch of fur or skin or whatever it was detached and strung from the body.

“Eww!” We laughed and could not get enough. “Look at his eyes!” I squealed.

Observing Everything

What was it when it was alive? What shape was it when it romped around in the night time; how did it sway? And look! Look at the tire marks, and the bleeding red that looked sticky. The texture looked soggy and wet, but still rough. A dark stain of red and a gash around his snout where teeth must have been—a gummy abyss—taunted me to look closer; a puddle of blood trailed where the car dragged his mangled body.

I tried to touch it before my mother grabbed my hands. Cooper crouched low and I followed his move, because we both loved gross things and he was my older brother. I moved when he moved.

“That’s a big red hole!” I said with my hands on my hips, examining the open flesh as if I were a doctor ready to hand out a prescription or solemnly declare his death to loved ones, shaking my head. My sister stood quiet and shy, perhaps being the only appropriately silent one of the family.

“Okay, now you’ve seen roadkill. Let’s get back in the car,” my mother said. My brother and I lingered longer than the rest, because we had something to prove. Finally, they dragged us back, and we continued on with our day.

The Uncensored Writing Life

When I think about this day, I think about writing. We have to look closely at open wounds and stop what we’re doing to experience something new. I am learning that a life of writing is an uncensored life. We cannot write what we observe by leaving out the gruesome details. We need to dissect the details every day and walk right up to something dead and look it in the eyes to see what life is like.

When we write about the things that scare us or make us cringe, we have to write the truth. To write the truth, we have to dig up what’s dark, and we cannot control where our writing goes or we will have dull writing.

When you write about your grandmother who had cancer, you have to write about the way her wounds looked, how her mouth sores changed the shape of her dry, bleeding lips when she talked—no matter how painful.

When we write about the pain of death or fear or the realities that we face in a desperate world, we cannot censor it. We cannot cheapen the physical descriptions of things because we are afraid to write them.

I have much to learn about this, but I am thankful to have parents who wanted us to see for ourselves what roadkill looked like—among other things—who let us peer over something dreadful with gaping mouths and ask what it looked like once, what it sounded like once.

But more than this, we must remember as writers that we are given opportunities to inwardly walk through life, seeing what we might not wish to see, but knowing that it gives us eyes to write and words to paint.