The Deep Impact of Shame

I recently wrote a book called Herc & Pyotr [now independently published as Tea at the End of the World], and it’s a contemporary romance set during a natural disaster: devastating meteor strikes across the world. Although the publisher’s intent, under their award-winning Storming Love banner of disaster romances, was to venture into the genre of science fiction with this set of stories, I didn’t treat “killer asteroids” any differently than I would have treated earthquakes, volcanoes, or wildfires (all past series under Storming Love) that happened on old Terra Firma.

I also didn’t want this story to be about Hollywood heroes and heroics—as fun as that can be. I wanted my story to be about ordinary people like you and me, and what we would do if there were a potentially cataclysmic event that could end civilization as we know it.

I love stories that invert or deconstruct tropes, because it makes it more interesting to me, although sometimes this can flop. An inversion flips a story around—like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, creator Joss Whedon turned the usual story of a blonde girl getting killed in horror movies for being pretty, stupid, and weak on its head, and turned her into the most powerful hero in the story.

A deconstruction takes an idea and often brings it back to reality, which isn’t always grim, but can be—for example, in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, we don’t have superheroes who inspire wonder and comfort, we have an alien that governments feel threatened by and an obsessed, humorless vigilante who doesn’t pun (this concept is flopping big time because it’s out of context—in comics history, you don’t get dark Superman or gritty Batman until you’ve had decades of fun, thrilling, and sometimes silly adventures first; the recent Superman and Batman movies deconstruct, but most mainstream audiences don’t know what they’re deconstructing, just that the shine is off their heroes’ armor).

In my own stories, I like to challenge assumptions to understand myself, others, and the world better. And sometimes, we don’t know what our assumptions are, because they’re assumptions! We don’t notice the air until we can’t breathe (or we can see it in Los Angeles). So when I went about writing Herc & Pyotr [Tea at the End of the World], and wanted to write about the people at ground level instead of in spaceships, government buildings, and television stations, I came to realize I needed to write this so I could be free—of shame.

Deep Impact, which came out in 1998 at the same time as Armageddon, were two movies that took the disaster film Meteor (1979) through a different set of flaming hoops, with Deep Impact focusing on characters and relationships while Armageddon centered on action and special effects.

Of the two, Deep Impact left a huge crater in me because it touched a raw nerve in its plot: the United States, in readying itself for a near extinction-level event, had prepared underground living arrangements—first for the chosen few (politicians, of course, but I think they used the word “leaders,” doctors, some artists and cultural luminaries, etc.

The rest of the country would have a chance of getting in through a lottery. And for those remaining after the lottery? Good luck.

When I saw this, it started me thinking: Would I ever get chosen? Am I important enough? What do I have to do that would make me worth saving?

What I didn’t know was that this process of being chosen, and me feeling like the last kid on the playground to be picked for a game (if I got picked at all), touched on a longstanding feeling of shame.

I didn’t feel like I was worth saving. I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t feel lovable or important enough; or that I would—at the very least—get to stand next to someone who loved me back when the end came if I didn’t get to be inside those underground tunnels. I didn’t feel like I had a place in my own story.

I went through several careers after that movie, trying to find the one that would make me feel valuable to someone. I did those jobs well, people said they needed me and paid me a decent amount, but I never got that magic tingle of meaningfulness and that’s when it dawned on me that I wasn’t seeking importance, I was searching for meaning, and that I didn’t need to disprove my worthlessness, I needed to embrace being alive—and all the vulnerability that implies.

After all these years, I’ve come back to writing, not because it would get me a golden ticket into the Cool Kids’ Club. I’ve come back because I can tell stories that aren’t about the “important people”—they’re about why people are important, and why we are important to each other, and how it’s okay just to be you. Really, it’s enough. (No, seriously, I’m not kidding.)

You could write, you could read, you could lead a nation, or you could do nothing, but underneath it all, it is my value that people matter merely for being here in this awfully big adventure, and true to the message in the social worker’s note Mr. Rogers kept in his wallet, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

And that includes hearing my own.

Originally published on Prism Book Alliance on April 16, 2016

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

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