An Observer in My Own Life

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz

June 20 was my half-birthday. I took my kids to the park, bought some yarn, and nearly died.

A reaction to an 800 milligram tablet of ibuprofen sent me to the hospital via ambulance. I’d taken ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.) for years. I’d taken pills out of the same bottle for two or three weeks following a bout of shingles. An aggravated rotator cuff injury had me reaching for the medicine that day. I was lucky that my doctor husband was home when the anaphylactic reaction happened since within minutes I couldn’t communicate, stand, or open my eyes. He knew what was happening and called 911.

My brain had to tell my body what to do. Not in an absent “lungs inhale” way but in a “breathe, breathe, don’t rest, breathe” kind of way. It started to scold me and remind me of things I needed to do: important things like raising my children and small ones like washing my hair. Somewhere in there was “publish those books,” less important than my kids but on that end of the spectrum.

On my way to the hospital, my brain kept me as alert as possible, “talking” to me about little nonsense things. One of them was “you can use this in a story.” Then I began thinking about how I might be able to work the situation into the Nano from last year.

Once I exhausted that possibility, my brain came up with, “So how are you going to blog this?” As the ambulance rumbled along, I started mentally outlining the episode for a blog entry. I decided on a starting point for the story and filed away the details I wanted to include. The medicine kicked in and all the work I did had kept me sufficiently stimulated. I opened my eyes to see the stainless steel interior of the ambulance. I began taking notes—again, for possible use in a story.

When it was almost time for me to leave the emergency room a few hours later, a patient was given the bed on the other side of the curtain to my left. The nurse asked him what happened to bring him in. “I got drunk and fell down.” The nurse said, “Does that happen a lot?” The patient replied, “Oh I get drunk a lot. I fall down a lot too. I’m a drunk.” Meanwhile, I was thinking about the dialogue exchange and the story that could be built around it.

Even when I was as close to becoming one with The Force as I’ve ever been (knock wood), I was writing. More accurately, I was functioning as a writer. There’s something in the way we’re wired that makes us natural observers, even in our own lives. What others might see as detachment or shyness is the writer gathering information: story ideas, dialogue, setting details and so forth.

When I made some T-shirts for Toasted Cheese to sell at CafĂ© Press, I paraphrased Garrison Keillor’s famous quote “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. It’s all material.” I bought one of those shirts a few years ago and I’m wearing it in my official photo on our masthead (even though you can’t see the sentiment). When Stephen King was hit by a car in 1999, he used his recuperative time to finish On Writing. He also used the accident and its aftermath as material in On Writing and as inspiration for Lisey’s Story and his “Dark Tower” series. I don’t know yet how I’ll use my experience in fiction but I do know that I will.

As I wrote this editorial, I realized that I had gone into “reporter mode,” as I call it. Having been a reporter, I sometimes find it easier to create distance between myself and the story, even if it’s a story with which I’m directly involved. When I ran it past a fellow editor for her thoughts, she also pinpointed the distance I’d inserted into this piece. For weeks, I worked on trying to make the story more personal and immediate and it just wasn’t happening. I was about to walk away from it and say, “This is the final draft” when it occurred to me that the distance is evident because it’s so close to me. I feel like I need to have that cushion to make the experience bearable. I know it will surface in a place where I can manipulate it and examine it as an outsider to the event—in fiction.


E-mail: baker[at]

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