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Fear... That Sinking Feeling...

Courtesy VideoBlocks
The most precious commodity all authors waste.

Maybe down some deep dark hole, we writers know why we delay the creation… or at least, in this particular instance, with this particular work, I know.
Fear. A many-kind-of-faceted fear.

It stems from the need for approval, of course — not industry approval, mind, not editor, agent, publisher approval — from my readers who are so wise as to find any flaw in an historical tale, but more importantly, from my characters. The kind where you are deathly afraid of disappointing a small group of courageous men who endured the unimaginable — to be trapped inside the capsized USS Oklahoma battleship after the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 1941.

For over a year now, I’ve been living with six sailors, an imagined group of guys in their teens and 20s who were healthy and happy and ready to take on the world war that was already brewing to the east, and in a blink of an eye one sunny Sunday morn exploded in front of their faces. In just 8 minutes, those men saw Hell. In just 8 minutes, they were trapped inside it.

I know the outcome, my story for them and the real men like them, and yet I am still compelled to write their tale.

AIR will be a literary fictional take on what the real sailors endured inside their beloved “Okie,” and I’ve chosen to relive that harrowing time with my six imaginary guys. You would think being called to such a tale would make me male, American and a Navy brat.

I am a woman.
I am Canadian.
I am not nor have I ever been, nor has any of my extended family been, in the Navy.
And yet these men called me.

Back story bibles abound.
I’ve even gone as far as putting faces to these men.
I know their weaknesses and their strengths, their foibles and their nervous ticks, and what they fear and hold dear in their short-lived lives.

I am about to tell their story.
I am about to show that there can be far worse things in life than death.
I have held their stories in my mind and in my heart for over a year, and now I must pen them to paper for all to see.

The three novels I wrote before AIR ran off my fingers like water, but this time it’s as if I’m slogging through Flanders Field mud to get down each word.
It’s not for lack of knowing the plot nor my guys’ motivations.
It’s not for scenes not having been fully fleshed out.
It’s not even for lack of the sights and smells and sounds within that ship and on that island and around those men.

It’s that with every word they utter, with every scene played out, these men, MY men, are going to war, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

It’s the equivalent of watching for the umpteenth time a video replay of the JFK assassination where you find yourself mumbling at the TV screen, “No, Agent Greer, this time don’t turn from Houston onto Elm. Gun that Lincoln for all it’s worth, all the way back to Love Field and get Jack the heck outta Dallas!” But you know, life doesn’t work in reverse. What was, is what has to be… but the child in you, that imaginative child who makes you the writer that you are, yearns for the good, the Happy Ending, in all the people you’ve come to admire and love… imaginary or not.

It’s fear.
Of going down that literary road.
Of having to say goodbye before you’ve had enough time to say hello.

It’s guilt.
Why do this?
Why create more sorrow?
Why put who you love and admire through all this all over again?

And yet from their faces beaming down at you from your storyboard, they whisper, “Tell our story, tell it. Say what we need said. Show what it was like, that excruciating time, those moments of hopelessness, those fleeting flickers of hope. Show the anger and the rage and the shame and the guilt. Show the greed and the fear and the prayers and the tears.”

So I type, word by word.
I stand silently where they stand.
I listen and I see and I feel and, through tears, I type on.

AIR may be the undoing of me as a writer. It may be that I need as much inner strength as those men did when the air was growing fetid and losing its chemical mix to sustain life.

With every word, a sinking feeling.
With every word, the fear surges, surrounds, envelopes, threatens to overtake.
I take breaks and rush outside into the autumn air and breathe in so hard and so fast, desperate for life, greedy for air. I may pass out.

I have an all steel awl which lies beside me on my desk.
It has no real use other than I’ve decided if the story gets too unbearable I can break an imaginary port window in the Okie and “escape.”

Of course, I know I won’t use it, not because real awls don’t work on imaginary port windows, but because my six seamen expect more from me than that. They have not abandoned me. I vow not to abandon them.

But the fear remains…
Each word I type tears a further gash into my soul.
Hemingway was right. All you have to do is bleed.

This tale from the watery writer trenches is a very real one for me. I live with a heaviness on my chest and a new appreciation for the simple, natural act of breathing. I have already been transformed by these six men. The overriding fear: can I make them proud? Can I get it right? Can I affect even one reader when all is said and done?

It can be debilitating.
But only if you let it.

The sailors of Pearl Harbor fought on.
The very least I can do is just that.