Killing my Patronus

If I had a patronus it would definitely be a bear.

I know this because a bear I conjured up in mind—and wrote into my novel—crawled off the page and intervened in my real life. But yesterday, that bear died. More accurately, I killed her.

Before you judge me too harshly, I need to tell you the whole story.Six years ago, I was driving home on I 93 from New Hampshire to Boston. I passed a young man standing on the shoulder at the edge of the woods, pacing back and forth over the body of a dead bear cub he had apparently just hit. My first reaction was sadness. The poor bear cub. As I continued driving, I felt sympathy for the young man, because he was obviously distraught at having killed it.

And the poor mother bear.

A chill prickled through my veins. Was the mother bear lurking in the woods? Would she attack the young man standing over her dead baby? What was that guy thinking? Run!black-bear3

At this point, I was several miles down the highway. The next exit was miles ahead of me. It would take twenty minutes to double back to where the young man stood. If I turned back, I would either be too late, or the young man would have already driven away.

So I did nothing.

I continued driving home, but I felt terrible about it. Why hadn’t I had quicker reflexes to stop and warn him?

I spent the next two hours in the car working out all the possible scenarios of what could have happened. What could I have done if the bear really had attacked? What would it take to risk your life for a stranger? Is the guilt from not acting worse than the risk of putting yourself in danger?

When I got home, I wrote a scene into my novel in which my protagonist witnesses a woman hitting a bear cub. She gets out of the car to check on the cub and the mother bear attacks.

But in this fictional version, my protagonist has quicker reflexes than I did in real life. She stops and saves the woman from the bear. I worked through a range of emotions from paralysis to guilt to fear. Writing it down felt cathartic, although I still wished I had had the presence of mind to act when that young man hit the bear cub in real life.

A few hours later I was in my backyard with my five-year-old son and I heard screaming coming from the lake that abuts my property. Five young girls were out in a canoe in the middle of the lake. None of them had a life jacket. And their boat was sinking.

My son and I looked on as people gathered on the opposite shore watching the boat slip under the water. The girls were crying. They clung to the sinking boat, panicking instead of swimming for shore. What if they couldn’t swim?

Emergency vehicles arrived on the opposite shore. Police and fire fighters paced at the water’s edge. The boat was almost under water. I felt nauseous. My son was terrified.

No one was rescuing the girls.

I thought about the bear and the man on the side of the road who I had not tried to help hours earlier. I thought about the scene I had just written, the emotions I had already worked through. And, oddly, I thought about Harry Potter.

Remember the scene in The Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry goes back in time and witnesses the Dementors killing an alternate version of himself across a lake? Harry intervenes and saves himself by lifting his wand and conjuring his patronus, a stag. “I knew I could do it all this time,” said the time-travelling Harry, “Because I’d already done it… does that make sense?”

It made perfect sense. I had already processed the fear, the risk, the guilt of choosing not to help someone only hours earlier. I had already concluded that not helping someone out of fear was not worth the ensuing guilt.

I did not have a wand, but I did have a kayak. I grabbed the only two life jackets I had, I planted my little boy on the pier, told him not to move, and went in after the girls.

They were hysterical. They tried to climb onto my tiny boat, threatening to flip it. They grabbed at my paddle and pulled it under. I did not have enough life jackets. But I felt oddly calm.

I knew I could handle it because I had already processed all the panic and fear in my head hours earlier.

In the end, all the girls were fine. I was fine. My son was fine. But the incident gave me nightmares for years. What if I hadn’t been able to get them all to shore? What if my son had fallen off the pier while I was helping the girls? What if I had accidentally hurt someone?

I still dream about it sometimes. What if.

I worked out my emotions and anxieties by writing and rewriting that scene with the bear on the side of the road. It made me feel better. It became my favorite scene and my most precious darling. It wasn’t really about a bear anymore.

A few years later I joined Lisa Borders’ Novel Generator class to workshop that novel. I opened with the bear attack scene. Everyone seemed enthusiastic about it. But Lisa caught me off guard when she questioned whether the scene belonged in the book.

I was mortified.

I reworked it. I tried to make it more integral to the plot and theme.

A year later I was accepted into Michelle Hoover’s Novel Incubator. After my first workshop Michelle and several other students questioned whether the bear scene really needed to be in the book. At this point, I was defensive. Of course it belonged there. They didn’t understand that I needed that bear. It was my patronus.

I reworked the scene again.

Then, one excruciating day, I saw what my readers were seeing. I had to let it go.

I am still convinced I needed to have written that scene. That bear gave me courage when I needed it and helped me work though some deep, scary emotions. But I did not need to include that scene in my novel.

After six years of carrying the bear around with me, it was time to kill my precious darling. I cut the scene while sitting in a café surrounded by my fellow Incubator students. It seemed like the right place and time to say goodbye. It hurt.

I’m still plowing through my revisions, but I feel a little lighter now. There will be more relentless editing. More tough cuts. But if I can get through this, I’m pretty sure I can handle whatever it takes to finish this manuscript.

I’d like to formally thank the bear for showing up when I needed her, and thank my fellow Incubees for holding my hand as I let her go.

Wands up!

5 comments

  1. Lisa Birk

    What a stirring and remarkable tale. And what a remarkable transfer of the power of that story, that worry, translating into action that saved those girls.

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