The Outer Limits of Inner Life

David Corbett

Writing problems are personal problems.

I can no longer remember where I first heard that, but I’ve come to realize it’s one of the truest insights into writing and the writing life I’ve encountered.

An example: I have a tendency to see the trees not the forest, to get lost in the rough, to marvel at the minutiae and miss the big picture. This isn’t just true of my writing. It defines my life.

I’m so obsessed with getting things right, with not making a mistake, that I dwell on details far longer than I need to. I over-complicate, listening to my nag of a brain instead of my gut. Over and over, I have to remind myself: What’s the goddamn story? Keep it simple, stupid.

It’s one reason I write so slowly. It’s also the chief reason why it took me so long to silence my inner critic and let go of the cancerous perfectionism that kept me from accomplishing anything. I’m not a late bloomer. It just took me too long to escape the prison of my own self-doubt.

Two weekends ago I taught a class I blithely call The Outer Limits of Inner Life, and it’s intended to get students in touch with the real life people and experiences that, knowingly or not, form the raw material for their fiction.

As Jim Harrison remarks in his novella, “The Man Who Gave Up His Name” (I’m paraphrasing here, having just spent half an hour trying and failing to track down the actual quote in my copy of the book): The sad truth remains we don’t get to be anyone else. The inability to accept this fact accounts for the questionable psychological states of many Hollywood actors. Look at them. See the folly whirling in their eyes.

I normally conduct this class by leading the students in a series of exercises: first, to acquaint them with a number of people in their own lives who have had some kind of emotional impact, from chain-smoking grandma to the kid who threw up on the teacher in second grade; two, to explore moments in their own pasts that were particularly charged—moments of profound fear, or shame, or love, or pride. In this way, I hope to root them in their own emotional truths, keep the folly from whirling in their eyes.

But due to the economy (I like to think), my enrollment was down: I had just two students. I threw out the lesson plan and said, Let’s focus on what you’re working on, and I had them tell me in detail about the novels they were writing.

Turns out, this was the best way to get at what I’d originally planned to teach. Go figure.

One student (his name is Richard) was a criminal lawyer with a long history of major trials, and he was writing, not surprisingly, a legal thriller. He’d had three agents almost bite, but had been told his protagonist wasn’t engaging enough. (I actually address this in another class I teach called The Protagonist Problem.)

As Richard got into the various scenes, he admitted he had his own doubts about a decision he’d made—the protagonist, being new to criminal law, makes a fundamental error early in the book by being too trusting of his client, and believing too wholeheartedly in his innocence. This mistake sets up much of the later action.

For whatever reason, I had this gut-instinct impulse. I asked Richard why he himself had gotten into criminal law—he was clearly a well-educated, middle class guy, not a former cop or street tough who’d gone legit with a bar card. Richard admitted that, as he was clerking after law school, he’d done a few criminal cases pro bono and had found he was good at them. He even got a second-degree murder verdict for a man who’d killed three kids in a drug deal gone wrong—when everyone was sure the defendant would get the death penalty. But Richard also remembered shaking the client’s hand after the verdict was announced, and feeling repelled.

I said, “You have to use that. It’s too vivid not to.” And we worked on making that contradiction—realizing you’re good at something that nonetheless creates a profound moral qualm—a core element of his protagonist, down to the skin-crawling handshake.

Instead of being naïve, the hero now puts too much faith in his talent. He’s a gambler, not a Pollyanna. This instantly makes him more interesting. But he also has this revulsion of genuine lowlifes, which ironically causes him to trust the wrong people. His arc pivots around the revelation that sometimes the person who seems morally repulsive is exactly the man you must rely upon—and the people you thought you could trust are the actual snakes—which sure enough was right there in the story all along.

Bingo, as Aristotle used to say.

The other student—we’ll call him Jim—was working on a police procedural with a lone wolf detective who’s nearing retirement but can’t quite let go. I asked the obvious question: Why is this guy a cop? Jim said it was because the job permitted him the means to live the life he wanted: a solitary existence, with a marriage long settled into routine, neither warm nor loveless, and a surfing sideline.

I told him that didn’t ring true for me, and it diffused his hero’s sense of moral purpose. Cops become cops because they have a sense of justice (at least the ones in books do, and a lot of the ones I know personally as well). They’re almost afflicted with a sense of responsibility, even if their own lives are a shambles due to irresponsible choices.

I let Jim talk some more about his hero, and it became clear that the cop was haunted. His loneliness was a choice, and something was bugging the bejeebers out of him. I said there just seemed to be something in his past, something he did or failed to do, or something he witnessed, that has eaten away at his soul ever since. It was clear from everything I was hearing, but Jim hadn’t yet honed in on it.

We talked it through a little more, proposing this, conjecturing that, and suddenly, the light went on in Jim’s eyes. “I know what it is.” It turned out to be something the hero didn’t do that has gnawed at his conscience. He was walking on the beach in Marin, he saw two kids struggling in the surf about thirty to fifty yards from the beach. He wanted to go in to save them, and knew he could with a rope lashed around his waist, but the two people on the beach with him talked him out of it, and the two kids drowned.

“Who were the two other people,” I asked.

“A cop,” Jim said, “and the woman who would become his wife.”

And yes, this wasn’t imagination. This had happened to Jim. And I said, as I had with Richard: You have to use this. By finding this personal link with his hero, Jim felt a newfound interest in him, a depth of insight he hadn’t had before.

A writer has only four tools: research, experience, empathy and imagination. The urge to rely too much on imagination—whether from sheer cleverness or a belief our own lives are too mundane to be of any use—steers us away from the core emotional truths and raw experiences that make us who we are. But those same emotions and experiences are what we want from our characters. We feel obliged to be inventive, when the truth is right there, in our past.

But as always, it wasn’t just my students who learned something. As the class was nearing its end, I talked about the novel I’m currently working on, and problems I was having getting into the main character.

The working title is The Wrong Girl, and the story’s based loosely on a case here in my hometown. Two girls were abducted six months apart by a child predator. The girls bore a very strong physical resemblance to each other: eight years old, slim, long dark hair, dark eyes. The first girl was still missing when the second was taken, but the second girl managed to escape after three days. (The first girl, they’d later learn, was long dead.)

Everyone admired the pluck of the girl who got free—until it leaked out that the reason she was so resourceful was because she came from a family of gang members. And sadly, ten years later, that girl was working the streets, in constant trouble with the law, despised by the cops who once considered her a hero.

I took this idea and built on it. That girl would have to live with the realization that everyone wished it was the other girl, the good girl, who survived. What was the message in that? You don’t matter. The trauma of her abduction, her abuse and imprisonment, would only be compounded by knowing that all too many people, even her family, would be perfectly happy if it had been the other girl who escaped. What would it take to save that kid’s life, to lure her back from whatever disaster she was calling her life at age eighteen?

Despite having worked for fifteen years as a private investigator, I’ve never written a PI novel—largely because I don’t see myself or the job I did within such books. PI novels are westerns, with the plains gunman transported to an urban setting. But Charlie Huston has urged me to forget all that and write what I know about the job, and this book will be the maiden effort. It features a PI named Phelan who’s been hired to find the girl, who’s name is Jacquelina Garza—Jacqi, she calls herself—get her to show up for court, and in the bargain he’s hoping to distance her from her poisonous family, find her some kind of stable life so she can turn things around.

But whenever I told this story to people, they always asked: Why does the PI care? And that’s exactly what Richard and Jim asked. And my answer was found wanting. I said he realizes that he’s the last chance she’s got—after him, the abyss. He feels responsible.

Richard said, “I get it here (pointing to his head), but not here (pointing to his heart).”

And so the teacher was obliged to suffer his own lesson. I needed to plumb my own experience. I gave Phelan my own nagging perfectionism, driven by a feeling he’ll never be good enough.

But I dug deeper than that. I realized I felt somethng for this girl because I too had a sense that I didn’t matter. I was a blue baby, Rh+ when my mother was Rh-, back in the day when this could prove fatal. I almost died at childbirth, and was quarantined from my mother for six weeks, a critical time, we now know, for bonding. And my mother would often, particularly when she had a bit too much to drink, gaze at me and with saccharine sentimentality tell me that she wasn’t supposed to have me, but she was glad I’d come along. And the guilt and misgiving in the message always came through loud and clear. What I heard was: You’re not supposed to be here. And it gave me my kinship with Jacqi, haunted as she is by: You don’t matter.

But I didn’t stop there, for I knew there was more within me that responded to this story, but I wasn’t getting there, wasn’t facing it head on. So I gave Phelan a bit more of my own biography — I married him to a stellar woman who died too young, a woman who herself fled home at fifteen, and who often said, if not for a friend’s family who took her in, she might have died on the streets.

This gives Phelan a gut instinct for how close a kid can get to being lost forever, because he was married to a woman who was just such a girl. And sadly, yes, he’s lost her forever. He knows the stakes. But he also feels that amorphous irrational guilt all survivors carry, feels it acutely, because his wife’s love was the only antidote he’s ever known to the poison of his own self-doubt.

And he knows what his wife would have him do. He has to do what someone did for her. He has to show this girl that sometimes you really do find a person you can trust, someone who truly believes you matter. He has to become that person—no sanctimonious bullshit, no noble altruistic look-at-me, no trying to reincarnate his wife through her or, on the other hand, saying glibly: It’s just my job. A kid like Jacqi Garza will see right through all that nonsense and he’ll lose her for good. It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done, like walking a tightrope between selfless compassion and Zen-like non-attachment. He has to be utterly committed and at the same time willing to walk away. He has to be brutally honest, tough as nails, and as open-hearted as a ghetto nun.

But if he gets it right, if he can lure this wild child off the street and into a safe place, maybe for once he can tell himself: At this, at least, I’m good enough. But if that becomes his motive, he’ll fail.

There. Now I’ve anchored my story in my heart and soul. It means something to me, something essential and yet something mercurial, difficult, as yet unclear, worth exploring. I’m ready to write.

* * * * *

So Murderateros, which of your writing problems can be tracked back to personal problems? When have you reached into your own life and found exactly what you needed to make a character or scene come alive?

Has your own life ever betrayed you in your fiction? Have you needed to step outside it and rely on empathy or imagination instead, because your own experience seemed to be holding you back?

And last: Does my story resonate with anyone of you raising teenagers — that need to care but not show it, to be there but also step back just a little, let go? 

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: Given the tone of this post, plus the fact we’re saying goodbye this week to so many of our comrades in arms, some for good, some for just a while, suggested the following song, written by Steve Earle and sung by Emmylou Harris:



47 thoughts on “The Outer Limits of Inner Life

  1. Reine

    David, I have too much to draw from. It crashes around in my skull and butts my brain loose while I write it down. It's just an angry puzzle.

  2. Richard Maguire

    "Now I've anchored my story in my heart and soul."

    David, I'm really looking forward to reading your novel when it's published. You make the PI's life seem as if he's locked inside a haunted house, where all the ghosts screaming at him are from his own past.

    A brilliant post. A perfect example of why Murderati matters. I'll bet, on this very day, there are no posts out there in the blogosphere that are more insightful than this.

  3. PD Martin

    Fantastic post, David. In the past, I've only drawn on small snippets of my own 'story' but the book I'm writing now (not crime fiction) is much more personal…for better or worse! I know that you were making fun of actors in this post, but I sometimes think writing is a bit like method acting. You have to be there, put yourself in the character's shoes and experience their emotions. And as you say, sometimes this is from personal experiences, others' experiences and sometimes imagination. I think empathy is a really good trait in a writer.

    Your new story sounds great.

    PS I'm glad Zoe has to follow you now!

  4. Pari Noskin

    Re: the teen — yes. And it's one hell of a difficult dance.

    Re: pulling from my own deep inner life? With the funnier stuff, I've done it a little. Right now I'm going so deep emotionally in my day to day, that it's leaking all over into my writing . . . . But I'm not ready to commit the real work onto paper yet; it's too close, too painful.

  5. David Corbett

    Reine: I can't imagine anyone who has more to draw from than you. Perhaps you feel it's too raw or unprocessed, perhaps you try to work with it seems to dissolve in your hands, but I doubt it doesn't infill every word you put down. It does here, in your comments. Always.

    Richard: Thanks for the attaboy. I'll be honest, I had no clue what I was going to write about until yesterday, this spilled out, and I feared it was too long. I'm grateful it touched you.

    PD: I trained as an actor and what I'm describing is personalization, which is finding an imaginative link between one's own inner life and that of the character, despite the different circumstances. It's crucial to any portrayal. My dig isn't at actors, but at megastars who get a little too caught up in who they pretend to be, rather than who they are. I'm really interested in this new project — will you be discussing it more here?

    Pari: Sometimes the shipwreck is still sinking, and it's hard to salvage it until it hits the bottom of the ocean floor and settles for a bit. We've discussed this here before. This time of tumultuous change and introspection will bear out, but for now it's all you can do to get through your day. I'd love to hear more about the parenting of a teenager, though, the curious dance of caring while stepping away, of being there but being invisible, that's required.

  6. MJ

    "I’m so obsessed with getting things right, with not making a mistake, that I dwell on details far longer than I need to. I over-complicate, listening to my nag of a brain instead of my gut. Over and over, I have to remind myself: What's the goddamn story? Keep it simple, stupid."

    OMG OMG OMG ME TOOOOOO! Yes, the brain nags, I bog down, I find that all of my themes keep coming back to my issues of personal and family pain and I'm not sure that I want to write those so I bog down again…. How did you read my mind? My writing problems ARE my personal problems.

    The rest of the blog – wow. This hit me hard, because you've showed me what I need to do, which is to go with the moments I'd love to forget and capture their power, because those are the moments that are unique to "me." The focus on an ancestor's illegitimacy, the issues of being a "winner or loser" (judged only by money and prestige), the demand to be so perfect that I redeem the unwed mother and the alcoholic and everyone else … that's my manure. I must own it even though it used to threaten to break my heart and my health.

    I can't wait to read The Wrong Girl. I'm hooked already, and from reading your blogs, it sounds like your sweet late wife is the inspiration for the stellar lost wife. That sounds absolutely perfect.

  7. David Corbett


    Yes, the manure pile is your gold mine. Sadly, eerily, funnily true. True for us all. If we handle it right, the pain and heartache, the shame and fear, enlarge us. Running from our lives into fiction is a fool's paradise.

    Cornelia probably knows this better than anyone.

    And yeah, perfection redeems squat. The perfect is the enemy of the damn good. One of my daily incantations.

    You will love that unwed mother, the alcoholic, the ancestor far more by accepting the emotional truth of their stories and your own than by being perfect for them. The truth really does set you free. Damn it.

    Keep going, MJ. It's a good fight, this life, if you don't weaken.

  8. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Aristotle said, "Bingo?"

    I'm tempted to make that my only comment. But your blog was too insightful for such a glib response.
    Damn, Corbett, you killed it on this one. You are such a wonderful teacher. I could so benefit from your class.

    You really make me think. Boulevard: so much based on me and my own experiences that I had to pull back and invent things I didn't do in order to create a believable, dramatic fiction. Beat: It came easier in part because I based all the surrounding characters on real people I met in the SFPD. My current WIP: Very, very difficult in part because I have almost no historical connection to any of the characters, including the protagonist. I'm just making shit up, and that makes me very uncomfortable. I'm struggling to find my heart in the piece.

    "The Wrong Girl" sounds completely, perfectly fantastic. Exactly the kind of book I want to read. Write it now, write it fast, let me blurb it. The psychology of the characters drives their actions. I love how you relate to the protagonist, how you found these relatable moments in your own history. I can see their trajectory over the course of the book. You've anchored it, my friend. Beautiful.

  9. Lisa Alber

    Whoa, feels like you read my mind from afar because lately I've been struggling with my writing and realizing that what I truly need to do is figure out how to unstick certain aspects of my nonwriting life. Lately, I've been thinking about giving up.

    Like MJ, this caught me:

    I over-complicate, listening to my nag of a brain instead of my gut. Over and over, I have to remind myself: What's the goddamn story? Keep it simple, stupid…It’s one reason I write so slowly. It’s also the chief reason why it took me so long to silence my inner critic and let go of the cancerous perfectionism that kept me from accomplishing anything…It just took me too long to escape the prison of my own self-doubt.

    Yep. And I can slide right back to early childhood for some of the reasons why I struggle with writing, which is, as you wrote, struggling with life. I created a prison around myself in early childhood because my parents didn't protect me enough. This safety mechanism is SOOOO not helpful anymore (to put it mildly).

    For the first time, I'm participating in NaNoWriMo. To write fast and hard, and to let go of perfectionism, business considerations such as saleability, self-doubt, the whole effing shebang. Clear out the cobwebs is disuse (and misuse, actually), get back to the bones of why I write: connection. Will I find connection again? I need to know. Not sure how this will help me figure out aspects of my life, but it feels like the right thing to do, right now.

    Thanks for a great post. Back to my 1, 667 words….

    Your WIP sounds wonderful.

  10. Sheri Hart

    What a wonderfully instructive post! I would have loved to have been one of those two students getting so much hands on help with their work. Glad you benefitted from the experience as well.

    In my own writing, elements of my unhappy childhood with an alcoholic single mom leak out all over the place. But it feels like self-indulgence to me and I feel uncomfortable with it. Too pathetically maudlin. I feel that at 43 I should be able to move on. LOL.

  11. David Corbett


    I think the feverish pace of the writing may help you break through that demonic inner critic. If not, if the critic reasserts itself somehow — writers block takes many insidious forms — tap into the part of you crying out to be heard, find out where she may be in your story, and let her speak. With that grounding, you should be able to overcome a great deal of the resistance that self-doubt inflicts.

    Sheri — yes, there's that part of it. Oh my God, how boring blah blah. But in truth, your story is unique, and it is in the details that make it unique that you'll find the real source of your creativity. Unhappy families — and people — are each unhappy in their own way. And once you understand that about yourself, it's so much easier to see it in your characters, and bring it out of them.

  12. twist

    As always, David, you make me think. And uncomfortable and unsatisfied and compelled to dig deeper. Thanks. Looking forward the The Wrong Girl. Gotta say, I do like the protag's name. 🙂

  13. Ronald Tierney

    Your post made me look in a dark corner and add a dimension to the book I'm working on…or maybe just figure out what I was trying to get at in the first place. Thanks for the insight.

  14. Reine

    David, I need your class. I just can't get there from here, as they say back home when the tide is out. This blog is a huge help. I'll slurp up whatever I can until my straw gets soggy. xoxo

  15. David Corbett

    Twist: Yes, I can imagine the name suits you perfectly. Very often, all that stands between us and a deeper understanding of something is the ability to sit with ourselves, feel the lack, and then ask: why? Strange how simple it is, and yet how quickly we rush from it, because the answer to the why is almost always something unpleasant we've done our best to keep at bay.

    Ron: Funny how rewarding those dark corners can be. And how human. Glad to be of whatever help I may have been.

    Reine: I'm beginning to hear an outcry for an online class and may finally realize I need to do that. Thanks for the nudge.

  16. Larry Gasper

    "I'm not a late bloomer. It just took me too long to escape the prison of my own self-doubt." I seem to have a problem escaping my own self-doubts, but at least I get day passes and the occasional weekend.
    Would have loved to be in that class. Kendall, the protagonist in the novel I'm working on now, could use a good dose of depth. He's kind of like the lawyer in Richard's book, close but needing a bit more. I'll be printing this off and using it for the next rewrite.
    Glad to hear you're inching toward offering an on-line class. Just from Murderati you should have no problem filling it.
    Looking forward to "The Wrong Girl."

  17. David Corbett


    I had a friend write me off the blog, as it were, asking whether there doesn't come a time when feeding off your own life doesn't become in a sense exploitative. I responded that I don't think you can exploit yourself — I mean, what else have you got but your own life, if you don't use it, whose life are you living? — but you can become repetitive, drawing on the same elements too often, or always in the same way. Or you can approach it too subjectively, without the cool and selfless eye you'd use toward someone other than yourself. We're after real feeling, not self-pity.

    The key I think is to find a new way to look at your life, so that you're not just remembering or reporting, but imagining as well. It's the same truth that lies behind Eudora Welty's ingenious: Write what you don't know about what you know. In this case: Write what you don't remember about what you remember.

    Kendall's depth is as close as the one thing he's lost that he can't get back.

  18. Reine

    Thanks, David. If you go online with your class, I'll be there. Right now I'm searching for my notes so I can WriMo. Can you believe it — I read Alex's blog and for the first time . . . saw my research notes as an outline . . . fit them to her format . . . now can't find any of it!!!!! Not even the original notes. Shit.

  19. Reine

    All right. I am the stupidist goddamnedist writer in th world. I took the deep breath (thank you, David) and started going through every single document in my file. I had renamed it some really godawful stupid name. Fortunately it started with an A. There is a lesson here. Isn't there?

  20. David Corbett

    Well, yes, life is just one goddamn learning experience after the next. Sadly, too often, by the time we have it figured out, we're no longer in a state to make it matter.

    But congratulations on finding the file.

  21. PD Martin

    Sorry, Zoe…couldn't resist! He's a damn hard act to follow most fortnights! No pressure 🙂

    I've got Gar now…will probably be just as bad! Oh well, not every post has to be incredibly deep or make you cry, does it??

  22. KDJames

    David, this is an excellent post. Deeply thoughtful and also thought-provoking. It was interesting to me that you named empathy as a writer's tool. I'd never thought of it quite that way, but it's true. I have waaaay too much empathy and I know it helps me as a writer, but it's a complete pain in the ass in real life. All these damn feelings running amok at the slightest provocation.

    And since you asked: "Does my story resonate with anyone of you raising teenagers — that need to care but not show it, to be there but also step back just a little, let go?"

    The story premise, yes. Absolutely. Caring about and trying to save someone else's kid who has somehow been let down by the people who should care? Yes. Been there, done that with more than a few of my kids' friends.

    But, and maybe I'm misunderstanding, the following sentiment does not ring true with me as a mother:

    "He has to be utterly committed and at the same time willing to walk away."

    In my experience, it's the opposite. Utterly committed, yes. But never willing, or even able, to walk away. As a parent, you are the bedrock. The one constant. You are always there. Always. No matter what. You don't ever walk away. You're the one who stands, watching as your kids grow and change and push away and rebel and come back and leave again. You have to be willing to watch THEM walk away, yes. But you stand. A subtle but, I think, very important difference.

    But it sounds like your experience with that relationship is different from mine, and you have to write what feels true. If it were my character (and it's not, obviously), I'd say the great risk he's taking is caring deeply again, for whatever reason. Empathy works. Because it sounds like everyone he ever loved — everyone who was supposed to love him back and never walk away — has betrayed that contract and deserted him.

    I think survivor's guilt is part of the conflict, if it turns out this girl is irretrievably lost and he couldn't save her. But more than that, it's the risk of caring again, of being UNwilling to walk away, opening himself up to the pain of yet another person who might leave. And maybe it's about learning how fucking difficult it is (and impossible, in the event of death) to be the one who stands and never walks away. And maybe it's about learning to forgive those who couldn't manage it in his own life — how that's a reflection on those others and their emotional or physical frailties, and not a measure of his own worth.

    That's my take on it, anyway. A slightly different perspective, if that helps. I'm going to look forward to reading it once you're done.

  23. Allison Davis

    We just had the class you all, don't you realize? He's an amazing teacher. Skype classes?

    David, I'm writing you offline. We need to talk about my WIP. Whoohee.

  24. David Corbett

    Tom: I always post notices of my upcoming classes on my facebook fan page and my website, but I'll also try to let folks know through Murderati.

    KD: Thanks for the incredible insights. Yes, you're right, a parent can NOT walk away. But this is a stranger, a professional, and this girl has been social workered and lawyered and copped and counselered to death. If he tries to get too close she's going to think he's got some kind of do-gooder agenda — or he's a guy trying to convince himself his sexual interest is really benign. It's going to get down to him being trustworthy enough that when she's really in a bind, and has nowhere else to go, she takes the leap. And he comes through in a way that convinces her he's on the level.

    That said, I still think your remarks are valid and incredibly helpful He has to let her know, no matter what, he'll be there. He won't allow himself to be used or manipulated — and this is a kid with serious boundary issues (duh) who's survived by hustling — but if she plays it straight with him he'll go the extra mile for her.

    But not everyone betrayed or deserted Phelan. His marriage was great, even with the awful loss that ended it, and that's given him the wherewithal to have a new woman in his life, one who's strong and caring and smart. (She plays a major part in convincing Jacqi he's ok.) He's getting over some of his old wounds, which makes him a more reliable caretaker for Jacqi. It gives him a gravitas she finds inviting. And safe.

    But you're right, he still feels that guilt, that loss, and knows how fragile life is. He knows how easily you can lose someone, and he knows how readily we contribute to our own demise by thinking we're not worth anyone's concern. (Your comments about forgiveness and being willing to care again are also incredibly on point, and they've really got me thinking.)

    I'm a little confused, though, about what you meant by not being able to stand there and not walk away when the loved one dies. Maybe I'm missing something, but I think that's what Phelan did, what a lot of spouses do — he was right there to the end. Devoted. He knows what it means to do that despite the gutting loss. He knows how hard it is. He's just not sure he can get across to Jacqi that his intentions are trustworthy without coming across like it's all about proving what a good guy he is, or having some weird personal agenda that has more to do with hsi grief than her. And she's not entirely mistaken.

  25. Reine

    KD, love and guidance . . . of course, but to me, being willing to walk away means allowing children to be themselves. Sometimes it's hard to separate the "what I want them to be" from the "who they are."

    I have several: Two stepchildren; Two adopted; Six foster.

    As a family and child therapist, you must be able to stand back and let go, not give up, and yet be able to walk away. It's critical.

  26. KDJames

    No, I meant that if you're the one who is supposed to stand and not walk away, it's impossible to do that if you die. It's a bit different with a spousal relationship because, theoretically, you both have that role. And even though the one who dies doesn't intend to walk away, I'm guessing that in the dark corners of the soul the result must feel very similar to the one who is left alone. Because once again, they've lost someone they loved. And maybe that person believes, deep down, it's because they weren't worthy or deserving. (Which is total bullshit, IMO.)

    I agree with you about him not getting too close, not being too eager. But that's different from his ability or compulsion to "be there." It was the "willing to walk away" part that made it feel like he could just shrug and say, "Oh well, that didn't work." [I'm grossly exaggerating; I doubt you'd ever write a character who did that.] But I'd want it to mean more to him than that. That it cost him something to care.

  27. David Corbett

    KD: Okay, now I see. And I agree with you, feeling guilty for the loved one's death is bullshit, but it's also inescapable. It's irrational and pointless but you feel it anyway. Dealing with that is one of the real struggles of grief, or it was for me.

    And absolutely, I don't mean Phelan shrugs the girl off. I mean he can't seem so invested she senses it's really about him, not her. There's a point at which it's up to her what she does or doesn't do, he can't control that, and if she walks away, he can't obsessively pursue her. He can only be there if she decides to come back.

  28. KDJames

    Reine, I disagree. I think there's a huge difference between being willing to walk away from your child and being willing to let your children walk away and be themselves. To me, the former is all but unforgivable. The latter is necessary.

    The role of a therapist is somewhat different. But still, walking away from a child implies (to me, at least) that if they ever want to come back, you're not there. You've deserted them. Allowing them to walk away is different. It's up to them whether they come back, but you WILL by god still be there.

    I suspect we're saying the same thing, just differently. But I'm trying not to make assumptions.

    Also, this blog hates me tonight. We'll see whether this posts the first time. Or the fifth.

  29. David Corbett

    KD & Reine: I think you guys are saying the same thing, just coming at it from different angles.

    And KD: let me know what the troubles are specifically — is the confirm code screwing up? Squarespace can be very quirky. Let me know what the deal is and I'll pass word along.

  30. KDJames

    David, I'm telling you, it's horrible. I keep getting these messages that say (and I'm paraphrasing, due to the trauma of it affecting my short-term memory):

    "HOLY CRAP, woman, how many times do you think you have to comment IN ONE NIGHT? Are you TRYING to break this blog? STOP HITTING THAT REFRESH BUTTON! We have LIMITS here, you know. Go away and let someone ELSE comment, for godsakes."

    Really, it's incomprehensible.


    [Seriously, I'm sure it's an anti-spam security thing. No worries.]

  31. Reine

    Hi KD,

    I don't think we're disagreeing at all really. I would never abandon my children. If you knew me you would know that, I think. I was seeing "walking away" as metaphor for letting go and accepting their individuality and separateness from me. My childhood and youth were a horror of abuse and other abandonment. I guess that drew me to family therapy and street ministry. I think I would die if I ever found that I treated any child the way I was treated.

    Just got a text that our oldest is back in Loma Linda, so I have to retreat a bit. I'll be online, even if I don't comment.

  32. Susan Shea

    It's late and I just got back to the computer. Sorry not to join the conversation earlier. David, where are these under-subscribed classes, which sound like hard work and worth the cost? Jeez, you have people peeling back their skin like real writers. But you get deep into what matters and your own work shows it. Thanks for throwing out some serious challenges. I try to write funny, but the same principles hold. btw your new book sounds terrific. I remember the cases and am glad someone's keeping the girls in their heart.

  33. David Corbett

    Reine: Take care, and best wishes to you, your daughter and your family.

    Susan: Thanks, hon. I think the belt-tightening is to blame, or so I tell myself. And I'm not so much trying to get people to peel back their skin — eeewwww — as get in touch with what has drawn them to their material in the first place. Sad but true, our culture is great at numbing us to our own inner life. It takes patience and awareness and a willingness to feel honestly to get at such stuff, but a life without it is a life lived among shadows.

  34. MJ

    Skype class! Skype class!!

    Though I agree – this post and comment section also was the class. But I'd take a Skype class too.

  35. KDJames

    Reine! I am horrified that you thought I was commenting on your skills as a parent. I do know you better than that. I realize I've been scarce around here lately, but I assumed you knew me better than to think I'd imply something like that about a person I admire and respect. And then to come back over and kid around with David and make joking reference to obscure lines from Monty Python, as if your feelings were unimportant? You must think I'm the worst sort of cold-hearted monster, if you think me capable of that.

    I thought we were having a friendly (non)disagreement about semantics. I just– I don't know what to say. This has really thrown me. For someone who imagines herself to be a writer, I sure do make an unholy mess with words, don't I? All I can do is apologize and hope you'll forgive me.

    Reine, I'm sorry my comments were hurtful and offensive to you. They were not meant as criticism of you personally and I deeply regret I was insensitive enough not to make that clear. I'll try to be more careful in the future, but I seem to have a real talent for making myself misunderstood.

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