The Disappeared

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   One of my addictions on the internet is a site called Websleuths. It’s a forum where people of all kinds from all around the world read about, discuss and often work very hard to solve real crimes. There are, quite often, people who are retired Law Enforcement, or worked in the criminal justice system in one way or another. Mostly though, it’s arm chair detectives who sometimes become far more than that. I’ve followed many cases on Websleuths, both current and cold. Some I check in on from time to time, cold cases that I hope the great strides made in DNA technology will some day solve. 

   Many people there have become involved with the Doe Network, an amazing organization devoted to giving the unidentified dead their names and their dignity back in what measure they can. In some cases people at Websleuths have been instrumental in making the connections between missing persons and unidentified bodies. I find this amazing and so inspirational. 

   I think my husband finds my fascination with all this stuff a little morbid sometimes. I can’t quite explain it, only that I think all of us, to one degree or another, are haunted by people who have simply disappeared. Who can ever forget little Adam Walsh, or Etan Patz, or more recently Kyron Horman or Haleigh Cummings? Or any of the other thousands of people, whether they be children or not, that go missing never to return home to their loved ones. 

   The case that led me to Websleuths though was one concerning a grown man, not a child. His name is Brian Schaffer and he went missing April 1st, 2006. Brian’s case was so odd, a case of someone who seemingly did disappear into thin air. I was haunted by him for weeks. Here was a young, healthy fit man in med school who walked into a bar one night, with friends I might add, and never walked out, though the friends did, claiming to have no knowledge of what happened to Brian. Brian’s mother had died only three weeks before, and many thought Brian disappeared because of stress, that he simply wanted to ‘opt out’ for a bit. It never felt that way to me- he seemed like a kind, smart man on his way to big things in his life, he had a girlfriend he was planning to propose to, etc. Two years after Brian disappeared his father was killed in a freak accident when a branch fell from a tree in his own back yard and killed him. It was mind-boggling that so much tragedy had befallen one family. Mostly though, I couldn’t fathom how someone, living a world of CCTV, could disappear as though he had vanished into the ether. I have never believed he disappeared of his own volition. Brian haunts me to this day. I can only imagine how the one remaining member of his family, his brother, must feel. 

   Another case I have followed for a long time is that of Morgan Harrington- the beautiful girl who disappeared from a Metallica concert, because she couldn’t get back into the arena after going outside. In Morgan’s case her body was found, but the case still remains unsolved. I read her mother Gil’s blog, which often consists of letters to her daughter. It’s heartbreaking beyond imagining what her parents have gone through. I think Morgan’s case hit me especially hard because I have a daughter roughly the same age, who had just gone off to university a month before Morgan’s disappearance. I have great admiration for all the Harringtons have done in Morgan’s memory, choosing to turn their pain into positive forward movement, so that others might not have to suffer the same tragedy they have. Brian Schaffer’s dad did the same, before his tragic accident.

   I had a close call as a child once or twice, maybe most of us did and didn’t even know it at the time. I was ten, and riding my bike home from a friend’s house, it was getting late, twilight had set in and I was racing to get home before the street lights came on. I had to be home by the time those lights came on, that was my curfew. About halfway home I realized that a young man was following me, was actually running to try to keep up with me. He didn’t say anything to me and at first I thought maybe he was just going in the same direction. But when I got home and pulled my bike up the little hill into my yard, he came up the hill, he was in my yard. And that was when, as I tugged on the basement door to get in the house, I realized my parents were not home and I was locked out. I can’t adequately convey how panicked I was, I somehow knew he meant me harm and he kept coming toward me. He was probably five feet away from me when my dog came barreling around the corner and went at him. My parents had been out for a walk, and got home in the nick of time. My dad asked him what the hell he was doing, and he had nothing to say just turned around and ran. To this day I wonder what might have happened had they not arrived home when they did. Could I have become a face on a milk carton? 

   I had another incidence in college. I lived out of the main part of the city with my grandmother, in an area that was somewhat more rural. I had to take a bus into the college each morning. I had a man approach me one morning to tell me that he and his father watched me each morning as I waited for the bus, and had decided I would make a good girlfriend for the son. I laughed it off at the time, but I shudder in retrospect. Needless to say I changed bus stops. But it gives you pause, thinking how life sometimes turns on a dime, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was lucky at least once, maybe more than that.  I was also stalked for five years, a subject I may blog about some day, or may not, it’s still a rough topic for me. I used to joke that if I ever disappeared my friends should direct the police to this man’s back yard.

   Maybe this is why I feel I owe the missing the minute it takes to stop, to read the fliers, to take in the details of their disappearance, to just stand for a minute and acknowledge what has happened to them. Because just in case, just once, I might know something, might have seen something that actually was meaningful but didn’t seem to be in the moment. So the next time you see a Missing poster, please stop and take the time to read it and really look at the face in the photo. Take the time to acknowledge that we all lose something when one of us disappears. 

   Because one day you could be anchored securely in the world with home and friends and family, anchored by love and tradition and familiar roads and pathways both literal and figurative, and then the next day, without warning to either yourself or those who loved you, you could vanish like smoke upon the air, leaving no trace in your wake. It wasn’t as though this was a thing peculiar to one land, for every country, every town, every lonely forest road had that same ability to swallow people whole, telling no tale on its unmarked ground, in its silent buildings. –Fr. Flights of Angels

 

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The Right to Write

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Last night I hit one of those walls you sometimes hit in a writer’s life. Well, we all hit them in our various ways, in our various lives, in our various careers and dreams. So, consider yourself warned, this isn’t a peppy, happy blog post. It’s the nth month of winter, and my soul feels about as grey as that slushy snow outside my window.

So much of a writer’s life is consumed by the activity, or rather the bewildering morass of the world of marketing and promotion, ie. How to Sell More Books. The current wisdom (and I use the word wisdom with some sarcasm) is that a writer should spend 80% of her time marketing, and 20% actually writing. And 80% of that 80% should be talking about kittens and unicorns and pretty much anything other than writing.  The thing is, I didn’t get into writing to become a marketing wiz, and maybe that’s profoundly naive of me, but I am in my 40s and don’t belong to the Twitter generation. Hell, I am still trying to figure out how Twitter actually works, never mind building some big audience on it.

See, this is the thing, I’m a writer, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. My second sin is that I write Big Books books that require concentration, I don’t write fast food books that can be consumed in one sitting. I believe there are readers out there for books that require more. When I write I bring my A-game to the table- always. I think about character and plot and how the story lines will dovetail, I think about each character’s truth and I listen intently to what they have to tell me. I never force story lines, simply for the sake of plot and I never sacrifice character for the sake of plot either. My readers are smart and they are going to smell falsity from a mile away. I think about historical timelines, and the distance from A to B, both literally and figuratively, I think about all the threads to be picked up from the last book, and how I’m going to catch up new readers without bogging old readers down with information dumps from previous books. I think about each word and its placement, and try as often as I can, without purpling up the prose, to make it beautiful enough that the reader will want to read it again and again. I’m not thinking about what to tweet. Maybe I should be, I don’t know.

My own personal motto, to be found on any number of writing memes these days is: Write the Book(s) You Want to Read. I love big, epic, lush, sprawling books that carry you away into another world, where you live and breathe and laugh and die with the characters. And that’s what I write.  What I write about is Ireland and her history, because it’s fascinating to me, because it’s a country I love, because it matters to me. Because it’s in my blood. I’m well aware that writing about the IRA and the Irish Troubles is not the sexiest topic, but it’s endlessly interesting to me, in a way that vampires (which commercially would have been a better writing move on my part) just aren’t. I’m passionate about it and I’m passionate about the characters I’ve created, and I know that comes through in my work, because the comment I most often hear from my readers is that they feel they know the characters, are friends with them, that they wonder about what goes on in the bits of their lives between books, that they cry reading about them after a long spell of not, just because they are happy to be back with them.

It’s why my favourite show is ‘Sons of Anarchy’, because it’s the same- epic, big, bold, but with characters so human that they can rip your heart out with a single line like- ‘I got this.’ I write because I can’t not write, to me it’s like breathing and when I go long spells without writing, I get really, really cranky and the dammed up creativity inside just about kills me. That need to create, for me, is only assuaged by writing, not by any of the other dozen creative endeavours I’ve embarked on, only to give up in boredom a few months later.

So this is why I can’t spend my day on Twitter, tweeting about anything but writing, in the hope that someone there will buy my books. Because I have to write, because my time is precious and with 45 staring me in the face, I realize that time is rather finite.

So the wall is there in front of my face and though maybe I will care next week or next month, today I am tired of Kindle numbers, I’m tired of trying to figure out the next marketing method (that nine times out of ten ends up being a waste of time and money). I’m tired of being asked why I don’t write about a trendier topic, or why I don’t try my hand at children’s books, though that one isn’t asked as much since my children got older. I’m tired of trying to solicit reviews from people who cannot be bothered to even write you a polite refusal. I’m tired of defending how my books are published. I’m tired of being gracious about reviews that are flat out mean-spirited and get personal in tone- from total strangers that don’t know me, but apparently didn’t just hate the book, but also hate me for some unknown reason. I’m tired of the endless marketing e-mails that land in my inbox from writers who have found a way to make it big on Kindle, though these always give me pause- if they are doing so well as writers, why are they constantly pushing their ‘how to get rich on Kindle’ kits, rather than writing? I’m tired of hearing about the ‘death of the novel’ about how a book can’t compete with all the other things out there vying for a person’s attention.

Today I will merely exercise my Right to Write. I will write for myself and those who are already my readers and stop worrying about the ones who aren’t. I will stop mourning that vast world-wide audience I once dreamed of having- though my audience is world-wide they are only vast in the geographical sense, not the numerical sense. I will write because I do not have a choice. I will write because I am not a marketing wiz. I will write because I am a writer.