30 April 2009

Unwanted Knowledge

I've returned to my research of corpses, which seems to be endlessly fascinating to me. (This return is in the hopes of generating new [more gooder] material for my play-in-progress, Hereafter.) I think the fascination stems from the fact that so much of the research is a discovery of items I never even had a hint of before. No one knows, because no one wants to know. I've always had an appreciation for the taboo--in some of the dullest senses--but this is the first time it's struck me as a pointed preoccupation. I love learning about things I ought not to.

Actually, it's not quite true that I've never before tapped this appetite for the occult. As an elementary school student, I almost single-handedly kept the library out of its stock of books on monsters and mythological creatures. It was embarrassing, I remember, but a thrill. The strange is thrilling. Erotic, too, in a way. Remember playing doctor, or sneaking looks at pictorial nudity? No? Just me? Alrighty then...

I feel I'm at a curious stage of writing, too. It reminds me of a couple of my first serious attempts at creative writing. A short story and a short play, written years apart, they both started out as one thing in my mind and were drastically different by the end, largely through the application of heart, of earnest meaning. These were improvements to the work, hands-down, but in both cases I was initially resistant. "No, I'm not trying to make that, I'm trying to make this." Someday I'll learn that it's more about whatever it is I'm making, and what it wants to ultimately be. In the case of Hereafter, this self-made conflict has to do with whether it's a play about what happens to our bodies after we die and how funny that can be, or if it's about how we process the idea of death itself. The latter is, naturally, winning out in terms of dominant content.

It's curious how creative work gets started, and where it can go from there. The ideas that energize our start-up can eventually hinder the process, and the emotions we discover in the process itself may end up being more significant. Well: If not more significant, than more directing, at least. Yet my research today has done more to motivate me to rework the play than anything else in recent memory. In particular, I was learning about the embalming process, and it was really firing up some ideas that I want to get on paper . . . er, screen. Which is ew; very ew. Still, it's fascinating. I didn't know, for example, that you should never investigate the lower end of the coffin in an open-casket funeral. Why? Because sometimes morticians remove the major inner organs and seal them in a plastic bag that gets deposited at the corpse's feet.


I also had a wonderful conversation about Hereafter and the subjects it addresses with a friend yesterday, which invariably motivates more writing. So that's the order of business this weekend, while Wife Megan is away selling swag -- writing more interesting tidbits about the verities of death. Maybe the things I have to share with you are unwanted. Or maybe, it's all just fascinating, and I'm saving people the trouble of admitting it.


emilyg said...

Coincidentally, I've recently read some interesting books on this very topic...

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality by Christine Montross
She's a physician finishing her training and the book is her philosophical musings on various life, illness and death situations she's encountered.

Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris
This book introduced me to the myriad options available when it comes to what to do with your body when you die. My favorite is that you can have your ashes turned into a diamond. I told my husband that if I shuffle off this mortal coil first, he can put me in a setting for his second wife. :)

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Clinical and humorous look at decomposition in various settings.

All three enlightening in different ways on a topic I'd frankly avoided before. I wish I was close enough to come for the next reading of Hereafter.

Jeff Wills said...

Interestingly, STIFF was responsible for the genesis of this play, Emily. I'll have to look up those other two; thank you! The diamond thing is not in STIFF, but I found it in other reading, and it is a part of "Hereafter"!

emilyg said...

Really? You used the diamond thing in Hereafter?? Now I have to see/hear/read it!!

BTW, my second choice if the diamond thing doesn't work out is for my ashes to become part of a block of fake coral dropped onto the Great Barrier Reef. Kind of a twist on burial at sea... I think that's in Grave Matters...

Patrick said...

Knowing when to guide a project, and when to let it guide you, is one of the trickiest but most fascinating aspects of creativity. As usual your self-discipline is getting you to do the smart thing, which is just to keep showing up, then your sensitivity is telling when to lead or be led. You're my hero. Few things are more fascinating that issues around death, even if the ick factor is potentially off the charts. I've recently fallen in love with the show *Bones*, which you might take a gander at once in a while, for the ways in which it tackles questions of humanity, justice, science, general human habits and tendencies. Lots of nice debates there about intuition v fact, the relative benefits of conjecture, just to name two. Oh, and yes, bones, dead bodies, decomposition and the various ways people react to them is central.

Jeff Wills said...

I must admit that I haven't watched much of Six Feet Under (and none of Bones), but it was part of what tickled me in my writing. I loved the concept of a show that, weekly, served as a memento mori. And that people loved that!