“Never write about a place until you’re away from it, because that gives you perspective”
As a writer when you search for that “one true sentence”, it is kinder to find perspective on the story, or maybe a place of reflection on the past, on a subject, or on the lies you were told and believed that helped get you through the day. Our lives are a constantly moving moment and you get caught up and swept away by the best and worst of the experiences. The moments of staring down death; of holding death in our hands. Seeing the last glimpses of life leave another soul and being the bastard that they must look upon as they leave this world. Holding the hands of a smaller creature that depended on you to be their voice and advocate can push you to and possibly over the edge.
Working in an animal shelter or a nursing facility are not that different. The dogs come in scared and feeling they are being doomed. The elderly have the same fearful look in their eyes. Abandoned by the world and their own families to face the next days of their life alone. The knowledge that this may be their last days on earth are clear in the glazed over eyes of the elderly, and the stray animals of the cities in which you live in.
As you are removed from these places, you keep with you the self reflection on the sounds of the last gasp of life as an elderly woman grips your hand and finally shuts her eyes for the last time. She gasps for air as if drowning in a torturous cadence. The heat of her body quickly escaping and you are left with a mixture in the air of sweat and death. The smell of death will never leave you and no time apart on sabbatical with ever clear the memory from your nose. The thankful grip of her bony hands and that last glance, her grateful smile she always gave you as you sat next to her, and her reluctance to eat cans of Ensure that you were tasked with feeding to her.
The animal shelter and the face and smell of death are different, but somehow exist in the same sentence as you tackle the environment with naive and ambitious eyes. In this facility, death is foreshadowed in every cage you see occupied by the same animal for more than three days. In this world, you are the reaper. You must take full charge of the chaos and take lives on a daily basis. Death, killing, and salvation happen as a routine in your life. As a writer the routine soon becomes a memory after you move onto another job and another town. What is left of the shelter life is self reflection on the salty stinging tears you fought back to seem strong enough to your peers. What remains is reflection and perspective of euthanizing enough animals that soon you do not have to fight the tears because the necessity or desire to cry for the loss of life and your role in it disappears.
It is hard to describe life as an animal shelter worker to someone outside of the industry. The roller coaster of emotions you must go through on a constant basis. Working with stray dogs, you quickly become attached when you give them the best care possible. The staff around you always walking, feeding, playing with, and socializing with the lost or abandoned companions. The voice and advocates for creatures that fell off the face off the earth. Caring for fearful animals and watching them turn into happy adoption dogs or into another frozen garbage bag destined for a landfill hole dug in haste. The reflection on the painful aches of your body after working yourself to exhaustion, prepping meals, or cleaning dog runs to keep them clear of disease. The lack of space is constant and you notice that the unpopular breeds are always the first casualties of the day.
To compose a sentence, an article, a novel, a poem, or even a clear original thought in those environments is tainted by the emotional baggage of the job. Truth is tainted by fear. You soon lose enthusiasm and shuffle through your day like an emotionless zombie, and at night when the day is over, alcohol becomes your priest of forgiveness. Reflection brings a higher truth to the situation and a desire for peaceful sleep without seeing the eyes of a helpless animal as you hold it down and take life away from it. Writing can become a cure to no longer lie awake in the night hearing the wails of a screeching dog when you missed the vein in its limb and they roll around on the ground bleeding from the needle stick and dying a slow painful death. The blackness in their eyes looking up at you with the question of “why did you do this to me”?
Writing that one true sentence about the situations becomes your mission as a writer. Sit down and reflect and write. To put words on paper to explain to yourself, if for no one else, what all that death and suffering means in the end. Hopefully, if the words come out right, the smell of death will no longer follow you around and hide under your bed as you sleep. Writers are haunted by their memories both good and bad. The project, words, and situations that keep you awake demand a stage. Your life is all emotional baggage, and the smart writers are the ones unafraid of expressing that baggage. The relationships, jobs, fear and loneliness of day to day life tell a story and only after perspective is gained can a writer tell it truthfully. Writers are lucky to have an outlet to expunge their demons to a visual medium. The life of a writer is a dairy of reflection and advice. Advice that is not often asked of you, but you provide anyway. The best writers remove themselves just far away enough from the edge to decipher their symphony of experience into an intelligible translation.
Given the time to find perspective, often you no longer must make yourself the hero of the story and allow yourself to tell it like it was. The truth lies in the experience, you can paint a portrait of those moments of pain and anguish along with joy and elation. As a writer you can describe to some future audience what life and death to you once was and what it meant to you at the time. Only with experience and perspective can you be truthful about a place that haunts you and makes you stronger today.