Use It

By John Gilstrap

Okay, first things first.  My most recent post dealt in some detail with a surgery I was facing to fuse three vertebrae in my cervical spine.  I am thrilled to report that even the doctor is surprised by the speed of my recovery.  There’s some post-op discomfort to deal with, but that improves every day.  Last weekend, I was able to attend a black tie event (Bond-era ascot in lieu of tie), and I made it all the way to the end.

And the nerve pain that triggered the procedure in the first place is entirely gone, save for some lingering numbness in my thumb, which I’m told will likewise go away with time.

Now, for the hard part.  The important part.  It comes as no surprise, I suppose, that my world view is a cynical one.  Blame it on decades with emergency services or a half century living in the Washington, DC are(n)a.  Blame it on a character flaw.  I don’t know why, but I don’t expect a lot out of people.  If nothing else, it’s an outlook that keeps disappointment at a minimum.

Then y’all went and shook my cynicism with unspeakable kindness.  Your posts and emails in support of me and my family and my stories were beautiful, heartfelt and deeply appreciated.  I wasn’t in a position to respond real-time, but please know that I read them all, and each one touched me.  Thank you so, so much.

I have never been an actor outside of a couple of high school performances but I’m fascinated by the concept of method acting.  As I understand it, actors learn to channel real-life experiences into the characters they play, thus finding the visceral compass that will lead them to the “truth” of a scene.  The Method teaches actors to create emotional vaults within themselves from which they are able to draw when the need arises.

I think one of the reasons The Method interests me is because it is exactly what effective writers must be able to do in order to make their characters–and therefore their stories–come to life on the page.

In my case, as my surgery date approached, I was forced into emotional and practical spaces that I don’t remember ever entering before.  The darkest of those moments for me came when I gathered my wife and son (32) on the sofa and had The Talk.  If things went badly, and there was a pull-the-plug decision, they were to pull it.  I have no desire to exist in a vegetative state and I looked them both in the eye as I said it.  I needed to give that permission directly, I thought, even though it’s all written down in legalese in my Advance Directive.  I gave specific instructions to exclude certain member of my extended family from that decision-making process because I knew they would introduce doubt.

As a threesome, we made light of it all, but I saw the looks behind the smiles and the fear and pain only reinforced the love I knew was there.  We had no reason to expect anything but the best, yet the worst needed to be considered.

Now, for the next few weeks, I am not allowed to lift more than 5 pounds, which means that I have to watch my lovely bride carry the heavy stuff.  Yes, I’m a believer in old school gender roles, and it hurts me to be the weak one.  It angers me.  And it motivates me.

Someday, in the near or distant future, all of it will inform a character or scene.  The indignity of the hospital stay, the non-breathable plastic mattresses, the pain of the first baby steps, the challenges of the first nights back home, the warmth of those oh-so-gentle hugs in the recovery room, the agony of learning to swallow again, the out-of-body weirdness of narcotic painkillers, the wonder of chronic pain being relieved.  All of it is there to be used.

For a writer, then, I guess all of life is one big research project.

Are you willing to share some of what’s in your vault?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

33 thoughts on “Use It

  1. Glad to hear you’re on the mend, Sir~! Working in healthcare I know most of us try to provide dignity and kindness to what you have to go through, but there is something about the gowns that just overrides the effort.

    It seems to me that your post is what is meant by, “Write what you know.” After all, how many of us have gone Mars (or even worked for NASA), or been a first responder, or had the time to research deeply enough to know Edwardian England in such detail?

    But all of us have our own “emotional vaults” from which the knowledge of anger, contentment, fear, etc., can inform the acting/actions of our characters (if not our own character).

    • Interesting gown story: When I was still in the PACU, coming back to the real world, I was very warm, so the nurse pulled my covers down so that my gown was my only cover from the waist up. (Or so I thought. I was flat on my back and only half conscious.)

      After a while, they announced that my family was coming in to see me. I said something about preserving dignity and I reached down where I couldn’t see and pulled my sheet up a little farther. The nurse chuckled and told me to stop. “That’s your gown you’re pulling, not the sheet.”

      No dignity in the PACU, but a fair amount of comedy.

  2. Glad and relieved to know you’re on the mend, John. The more I read of your posts, the more I realize you and I are alike in so many ways, and I’m just stubborn enough to be happy about that. May you heal quickly and well.

  3. More good wishes for your speedy recovery. Hope you enjoyed the Galapagos pictures.
    Emotion vaults are what we draw from, more, I think, than the realities of situations we find ourselves in. My last hospital stay was over 25 years ago, and if I tried to write the actual events, they’d be so far out of date as to be unbelievable.
    My writing buddy just had her second hip replacement surgery, and the doctor used a different procedure than the one from three years ago.

    But the emotion is there–it’s a matter of being willing to open the vault and lay it on the page. I don’t need to write a scene about a mom driving her won’t-stop- screaming-baby to the hospital at two in the morning, but I can have a character experience those feelings in an entirely different context. Fear is fear.

  4. Wonderful news, John! Don’t beat yourself up over not being able to lift. I’m sure your wife would rather lift heavy objects than see you get hurt. This too shall pass.

    Are you willing to share some of what’s in your vault? That’s not an easy thing to do IRL. I exposed my chronic pain once on my blog, and the outpouring of love almost brought me to tears.

    In fiction, I have one particular character who shares some of my personal struggles, but I’ve added ailments sporadically over several books so they didn’t overshadow the main plot or make her sound whiny and weak, as I don’t want readers to pity her.

    • Thanks, Sue. The empathy/pity line is a tough one–in fiction as well as in reality. No one wants to be defined by the negatives in their lives. It’s the part of the current cultural obsession with victimhood that confuses me. It plays as weakness.

      Strength is defined by those who accept the cards they’ve been dealt and play the hand to its fullest, bluffs and all. One of the most inspiring elements of the SHOT Show every year are the disproportionate number of profoundly disabled young veterans in attendance who are accepted as equals by the community of other vets. Their disability challenges them. It doesn’t define them. Nothing but respect here.

  5. First, congratulations on the success of your surgery and your speedy recovery. Based on what I see here, you should be more than capable of hoisting a pint or three at the C3 conference this September.

    A couple of years ago my father took his time dying of congestive heart faiure, denying he had heart trouble to the end, even though he’d had a pacemaker for several years. My mother is in assisted living and about halfway along the dementia spectrum. Bits of their (and my) experiences are finding their way into my writing. Not only does it help to add depth and humanity to the characters, it’s a way for me to measure where I am psychologically and emotionally. The Beloved Spouse says those scenes are some of the best writing I’ve done.

  6. (Ah internet, how I love to hate thee. It devoured my first attempt at a reply. Hopefully I don’t accidentally post twice!)

    Glad to hear surgery went well and moreso that recovery is swift! Often the latter is more difficult than the surgery. But please do take it slowly; I’m sure your wife is more than happy to pitch in versus you doing further injury to yourself!
    (BTW…that was clever with the “are(n)a” remark!)
    I feel your pain, so to speak, with nerve issues. Mine was in my neck and hand, and I worried surgery would be required. But apparently an MRI startled my body into proper alignment; not long after having the MRI, all pain and numbness disappeared!

    I definitely concur with George & Terry’s thoughts on “emotional vaults.”
    While I do practice a form of hand-to-hand sword combat (remember the neck pain? Haha…yeeaaaah), it’s done fully-armoured and subject to many rules of honour. (The crotch is not a viable target!)
    So, fortunately, I will never have the “mechanical” experience of putting my sword through an opponent, or having a sword put through me!
    But I do know the commingled dread and exhilaration of facing an opponent far larger & stronger than me. All of the attendant annoyances of moving and breathing and “living” in armour. The surreal dislocation of full melee combat where everyone involved comes away with a completely different version of events.

    And I love the way you describe cataloging your personal experiences for later use.
    I feel emotional states are endlessly transferable to different literary contexts.

    A friend remarked recently that I seem to “live in the story and the real world simultaneously.” Isn’t that how we all exist as writers? Constantly cataloguing real world minutae for later reference? As you said, “life is one big research project.”
    Perhaps that explains why I sometimes forget why I walked into a room. Or why I put my keys in the fridge with the groceries. My head is too full of random reference material!

      • Haha! You’d be a daisy if you do, I’m sure!

        Here’s an example of melee combat in the field:
        Knight of NY’s video

        To see examples of the melees /in person/, check out either of these two pages.
        War Practice in

        I don’t know if the War Practice is close to you (I’m not in VA), but it’s at least a collection of sword combat and siege weapons. (trebuchet, ballista, etc)

        Or here’s the main link for one of the large “wars.”
        This is the only “war” listed on the Virginia SCA site, but it’s actually in Kansas. Sorry. But there you WILL see melee combat.

        For live steel blade combat, check out anything by HEMA. Totally different than SCA, but still technically blunt force.

  7. Great report, Brother Gilstrap…and yes, it’s all material. I always feel somewhat guilty when I VISIT someone in the hospital, as half my mind is taking notes.

    In my book on Voice I talk a bit about acting method (specifically, that utilized by an acting teacher I had in NY, the legendary Uta Hagen). It’s a great skill to have as a writer, especially because you can use it without having to worry about going onstage!

    Well, at least you can lift a pen and tap keys. Welcome back to the blank page.

    • One of the reasons I never pursued acting–lord knows I love being onstage–is the requirement to show raw emotion in a public setting. That’s just not me. Come to think of it, the fact that I am the opposite of that, the fact that I hate showing public displays of emotion, helped make me an effective emergency responder. The emotion happens behind closed doors among only a trusted few.

  8. Great news, John! I’m impressed you can write a terrific, coherent post this soon afterwards. Medical folks call surgery an “insult” to the body. A friend says she thinks the term should be an “assault” on the body!

    I suspect your bride is far less bothered than you are. Just remember–if your surgery had gone sideways, she’d be stuck doing all the heavy lifting forevermore. This is only a slight temporary inconvenience.

    The emotion vault is the greatest treasure chest we writers have. If it hurts to write, dig deeper and hurt more b/c that’s what readers connect with.

    • Thanks, Debbie. A doctor friend of mine told me once that while the body is an amazingly adaptive organism, it’s not smart. It doesn’t know the difference between surgery and a knife fight. It knows it’s been wounded, and it goes to work healing the wound before we become dinner for something higher on the food chain.

  9. In the vault….
    I have been a pizza driver for 30+ years. A few years ago someone said I should write my stories down. That project is now about 15,000 words along but going slow.

    My best friend was murdered in 1979. He was killed by a DWI. The penalty was a $900 fine and a six month license suspension. I spent a long time dreaming of retribution. On paper, there will be a murder. There won’t be a conviction.

    This would be where the KZB and First Page Critiques have been a great help. Maybe a year from now I will be Mr. Anon submitting my work.

  10. Glad to hear things went well, and you’re on the mend. Chronic pain is no fun. My vault runneth over, and yes, of course, it informs my writing. Like you, I’m not overly demonstrative, so one of my biggest challenges as a writer is letting my characters’ emotions come through.

  11. Glad to hear you’re recovering fast, John. All those emotions and experiences are what make our writing rich and intriguing. You now have the opportunity to add even further depths to your characters.

    Too bad it often takes a life-changing event to give us the material we work into our stories. Why do those revelations of strength, tenacity, and courage never seem to happen while we’re sitting on a beach somewhere, sipping something cold and relaxing?

    Take care and mend completely.

  12. Good post John, and glad to hear you’re recovering well. It is indeed these types of life events that really can help us write stories that leap to life from the page. My own last series, ICE HAMMER, is basically a collection of everything I fear happening to me and my family, put into narrative around a plot.
    The pain of surgery, recovery, facing the end, if we can store those images, emotions, and physical reactions in our memory and lay them into the fleshing out process of writing we can bring reality that sucks the reader into our experience.

  13. So glad you are doing well. My mother has now had most of her spine fused. Even with the downsides of that process, so much is good about it, including the fact that she would not be alive today without it, and certainly not walking around without it. So glad you had good nurses and health care. My mother did too, and it is a wonderful gift.

  14. So glad you are doing much better. Now BEHAVE. Picking up that heavy thing won’t be worth the consequences. Been there, done that. My excuse was I kept forgetting I couldn’t do certain things because I was feeling better.

    As a writer and an omega personality, I’ve always been aware of that person in my head who is watching everything that is happening within and around me, and she’s taking notes to be used later. I know with absolute certainty that, as I am taking my last breath, that person will still be taking notes. It’s what and who I am.

  15. Glad to hear you’re well on the way to recovery. The no-lifting-over-5-pounds thing is just temporary. Sometimes, we need to let others help us with the weight of our recovery. I get the same way when I’m ill: my gender role as wife and fur-mum takes over and I feel like I need to take care of everyone in the household, rather than focus on getting better.

    As for what’s hidden in my vault? Jeez, that’s not a place I recommend for anyone to visit. It’s dark, damp, and pretty cold, and the vast majority of that vault deals with my own issues of self-confidence. As a sadistic writer, I enjoy stripping my characters/babies of their confidence, but what I love and find cathartic is having them figure out how to either build their confidence for the first time or build it back up after a serious knock.

    Again, glad you’re on the road to recovery. :o)

  16. I am very pleased to see you’ve recovered so well and so quickly, Mr. Gilstrap.

    I keep my son’s illness is in my vault. It’s a constant drag on my day if I don’t bury it deep. It’s not going to kill my boy but it is going to cripple him, slowly. Trying to stay positive, this ugly fact has given me more sympathy for my fellow man than I ever thought I’d have. I volunteer for anything and everything these days. I ring bells by the kettles at Christmas time (can get very cold in Ohio!). I’ve done meals on wheels and I mow grass and shovel walks for local seniors. They pay me with egg-salad sandwiches, brownies, and one gentleman always gives me a cold Coors Light when I’ve mowed his stretch.

    As it applies to writing, I’ve never thought about it, but I’m not sure I could write a character under similar circumstances. Hopelessness is a heavy thing.

    And again, very glad you’re doing so well, sir!

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  18. So glad you’re recovery is going well! Life definitely is a research project but most of what I’ve been through will definitely stay hidden – though I’m sure some of it will seep into a character or two one day:)

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