The experts teach us that writing and storytelling cannot be separated from living. They share the same water and air. They coexist in space and time just like any two, seeming contradictions. Liquid metal. Hard water. Bright night. Soft porn. We accept these curious incompatibilities as a familiar part of our everyday lives—and we generally aren’t tasked with having to give them much consideration.
But we don’t really understand them.
The bar that separates writing from living is no stronger than the tether that binds them together. In the same way, human bodies are filled with elastic tubes that push and pull our blood in opposite directions. Some carry oxygen rich blood away from our hearts. Others carry oxygen poor blood back. But they share a common ground where the like and unlike cargo intersect, and are exchanged.
The differences between storytelling and real life are every bit as interconnected. They are the literary equivalent of fraternal twins. They derive from the same source. They incubate, divide, and grow together—but they lead separate lives. They don’t look alike. They don’t talk alike. One is tall. One is short. One is lean. One is fat. One laughs easily—the other, not at all.
My jury service began on a Monday. I expected it to last one day, as was customary, and was stunned when I realized that I had been assigned to the jury pool for a capital murder case. We were not told that the jury selection process for first-degree murder trials could take from several days to several weeks.
During long breaks and longer lunch hours throughout my week of jury service, I’d find quiet places to sit, and read Stephen Koch’s book, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop. Professor Koch covers topics that help writers and aspiring writers find, invent, and craft their stories.
“As a writer, you are using words to turn your unknown into what you know,” he wrote. “Edith Wharton summed it up well: ‘As to experience, intellectual and moral, the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heartbreak will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.’”
The defendant stands before you charged with First-Degree Murder, First-Degree Kidnapping, and Assault With a Deadly Weapon Inflicting Serious Injury.
For most of a week, I sat with 142 other like and unlike, state-defined peers, sharing space and air with the accused. We sat and listened as the gruesome details of a brutal murder were slowly teased out and revealed during the careful questioning of potential jurors. We heard lurid tales of domestic violence, murder, and decapitation. We received dire warnings of graphic photographs, blood evidence, autopsy images, and certain testimony from the children of the victim.
“There are many ways of knowing things. Yes, you ‘know’ what you can easily articulate right now. But you also ‘know’ what you only obscurely sense, what you have not yet articulated; you ‘know’ what you intuit prior to language; you ‘know’ what you can only vaguely and distantly feel, what is out of your grasp, what you must dig to reach or even touch. This is where you will find your story.”
We sat on long wooden pews in a large, brown room full of gray light—a room like a church. Equal in ceremony and solemnity. Equal in order and method. Equal in process and predictability.
Equal, but vapid. Offering no hope or joy, and no promise of salvation.
Names of potential jurors were called at random from a thick stack of white index cards. One hundred and forty-three of them. One hundred and forty-three peers of the accused.
Were we his peers? Were we the peers of anyone accused of such heinous crimes? Were we even the peers of each other, accused of nothing greater than our individual levels of abstraction, inattention, impatience, or preoccupation with our own affairs? Were our sins of self-absorption and ignorance greater or lesser offenses than those assigned to the hollow man who sat before us, staring with lifeless eyes at a future that seemed to hold only one certain outcome?
The naked, headless body of the victim was discovered in the woods near Bethabara Park.
Forty more of us were interviewed and rejected.
Do you believe the death penalty is a necessary part of the law in North Carolina?
A young man who wore neon yellow running shoes was interviewed. After the clerk instructed him to remove his ball cap, the potential juror stated that he believed the death penalty was right for people like terrorists or serial killers, but not right when two guys just got up in each other’s faces and somebody ended up dead. Things like that just happened, he said, and nobody should be killed for it.
Sixteen more potential jurors were called. More index cards shifted from one pile to another.
“Look for a beginning—or an end . . . A story—any story—recounts a sequence of events. Those events happen in time. You do not have to begin at the literal beginning of the sequence. The ancients advised beginning in medias res, in the middle of things. But you must begin somewhere. Once you’ve begun, you must proceed to some end . . .Even writers who begin their stories with nothing more than a phrase sense that it is a beginning phrase, a phrase that impels them to what follows.”
Have you had any direct experience with domestic violence?
Yes. I had direct experience with domestic violence. A lot of it, in fact. Find me a woman who insists she hasn’t. Then ask her the right questions and you’ll unlock her secrets, too. They’ll tumble out before you and clatter across the floor like precious, tiny beads from a broken necklace.
But my name wasn’t called.
A woman named Martha was called instead. Martha was sweet and simple. She wore a cloth coat and flat-bottomed shoes. Her pants were too long, and she walked their hems as she made her way to the jury box. Martha answered questions for nearly an hour. She knew nothing about the case. She had no strong feelings about the death penalty, but she supposed there were times when it made sense. She had twin daughters, aged twenty-four, with whom she had little contact. She knew they both had jobs, but wasn’t sure what kind. She’d lost her own job more than a year ago, and was still looking for work. Her husband was a clerk at Sam’s Club. She knew nothing about science or psychology. She had no transportation to the courthouse, but told the judge she supposed she could take the bus to get there. When Martha was asked about her ability to listen to expert testimony, she confessed that it was sometimes hard for her to tell when people were being honest, but promised that she’d try to do her very best to figure it out. She apologized a lot for her shortcomings—real or imagined. She laughed at the wrong times, mostly to cover her embarrassment or lack of understanding.
Martha became juror number four.
“Steel yourself. Be brave. ‘Courage first,’ says Maya Angelou, ‘…the most important of all the virtues. Without that virtue, you can’t practice any other virtue with consistency.’ Katherine Anne Porter would have agreed: ‘One of the marks of a gift is to have the courage of it. If they haven’t got the courage, it’s just too bad. They’ll fail, just as people with lack of courage in other vocations and walks of life fail. Courage is the first essential.’”
Would you be able to look at photographs of the victim’s decapitated body and not make any judgments about the guilt or innocence of the defendant until the defense has an opportunity to present its case?
Twenty more potential jurors were called. All twenty were rejected.
Still, my name was not among them.
The victim’s skull was discovered two years after her murder in a remote area of the county.
Another day came and went. Jurors three, eight, nine, and eleven were seated.
Will you be able to listen to the testimony of the victim’s children?
The same children who heard their mother’s screams, and who used a fork to try and unlock the door to the bedroom where their estranged father had dragged her. Children who watched their father carry their mother’s bloodied body out of the apartment, and load it into the back of his car. Children who ran to a neighbor’s house to ask for help.
“The entryway into every story is conflict. This is because conflict—that is, some contested issue between people that must be resolved—is the thing, the only thing, that makes us ask: What happens? The reader who does not care about this question will not care, period.”
As more days passed, and the potential jurors came and went, those of us who remained in the pool would file in and out of the courtroom as ordered. We’d stand in the dark corridor while motions were discussed and debated outside our hearing. We were instructed not to talk with each other or with anyone else during these periods. Still, people talked. Endlessly. Constantly. They talked in ongoing monologues and light-hearted dialogues. They talked and talked until their combined voices grew loud enough that a bailiff would emerge from the brown room to remind us to keep silent.
We were instructed not to have our cellphones turned on at any time during court proceedings, but the small squares of blue light that dotted the narrow hallways were impossible to mistake as people frenetically checked email, sent text messages, or played games while they waited. For many, the seriousness and solemnity of the event we were witness to held little interest or merit. It was an annoyance. An interruption. It was a meaningless waste of time. They chewed gum and drank sodas and tore into bags of chips and crackers. They left trails of empty bottles and torn candy wrappers on the floor beneath their seats, like moviegoers at a matinee. After all…what was happening on the stage in front of us wasn’t real. And whatever it was, it was nowhere near as important or expedient as the personal and professional commerce carried out on their smart phones.
“And, of course, conflict also shapes character, more even than the more amorphous thing called ‘personality.’ Since conflict alone tells us who cares about what in the story, conflict is the real force that assigns characters their roles.”
Do you consider death to be the only penalty for someone convicted of first-degree murder—meaning willful, premeditated murder with malice?
Did I? I knew that I did not. I never had. But after so many days of hearing the same question asked over and over in a hundred different ways, in the context of so many implied horrors, I wasn’t sure. Day after day, I sat beside a rolling cart, loaded with fat notebooks. Someone had labeled the cart with a black Sharpie. “DA’s Office. 7th floor. VIOLENT TEAM.” The notebooks all had white, typewritten labels. Crime Scene Notes. FBI Notes. Field Notes. Forensic Notes. Witness Notes. The likely contents of those bulging notebooks swirled around me like a dense fog. Everything was growing murkier and harder to distinguish. What I thought I knew. What I thought I believed. Where I thought the lines were drawn between reasonable and unreasonable. Who was really being judged here? Whose values and moral codes were really on trial? The State’s? The defendant’s? The remaining forty-six potential jurors who sat in that brown room behind me?
“The word protagonist may smell a bit of the classroom, but let’s ignore that little whiff of chalk dust in the air and agree that protagonist is a good word: a lot less argumentative than hero and a lot more precise than main character. Many of your characters will have some sort of conflict, and many of those conflicts will lead to some sort of outcome. Figures may fall in love or die or go mad or become murderers or inspiring heroines. All kinds of characters can play important roles. That does not necessarily make them the protagonist—the figure whose problem is the story’s prime focus and whose fate decides the story’s meaning.”
Another name was called. A tall young man who walked with a swagger made his way to the jury box. His nylon running suit made whispering sounds as he passed in front of us. He walked with what looked like confidence and determination—as if he knew this was going to be over with quickly. “Have you heard anything in the questioning that’s already taken place that raises any kind of red flags for you?” The judge asked him. The man nodded. “Would you please say ‘yes’ or ‘no,” sir,” the judge repeated. “All of it,” the tall man stated. “Everything. I already know what I believe.” The judge looked at the man with exasperation. It was nearly three-thirty, and it was clear that another day was evaporating without much forward progress. “Sir,” the judge began. “Are you saying that you have already formed an opinion about the outcome of this case?” He held up a hand. “And don’t tell me what that opinion is if you have.” The man in nylon nodded. “Please say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ sir.” Potential juror number six answered, “Yes.” He looked at the defense table. “I have my own opinions, and I won’t change my mind.” The judge sighed. “The clerk will please call a replacement for juror seat number six.”
The defendant is a native of El Salvador, and he is in this country legally. It’s important to know that he is not on trial for his immigration status. Can you tell me your views on the subject of immigration?
A small woman with a smaller voice responded to the question. “I don’t have any problem with legal immigration,” she stated. “Anyone has the right to come here if they work.”
The defendant speaks little English and requires the assistance of a translator. So he’ll be wearing headphones throughout the course of the trial. Will that cause any problems for you?”
The small woman shook her head no. “But I do think they should learn our language.”
She was thanked, but excused. The clerk called for replacements for juror seats two, six, and twelve.
More names were called. More cards exchanged places. Juror ten was seated.
“True when you begin work, a proliferating cast of characters may seem a welcome sign of life. Each will seem a candidate for some big role. But once you have found your protagonist, once you are sure about the unmistakable center of your own story, some of these intruders will start to fall away. What endows your story with unity? More than any other element—more than style, more than point of view; more than plot—that unifying force is the singularity of your protagonist and her or his conflict. Everything else forms around this center. Every other role is found in relation to that role, and any character without a significant connection to the protagonist is going to wander through your pages a clumsy intruder, lost and in the way.”
The litany of questions continued. They were being delivered with greater dispatch now. Words and phrases echoed off the walls of the courtroom in cadences like anthems or lines of memorized verse. The attorneys could have been asking about a juror’s ability to view photographs of partially decomposed human remains, or they could have been reciting the prologue to the Canterbury Tales. It didn’t really matter. We all knew the questions by now. It was only the responses that varied in content or tone.
Jurors one, five, and seven were seated.
Another day ended.
If you were the foreperson of this jury, and the sentence was death, would you have the intestinal fortitude to write the word “Death” on the sentencing sheet? Would you be able to sign your name to that sentencing sheet? And would you be able to come into this courtroom and announce that verdict?
Write the word down on a sheet of paper? Sign your name to it? Face the defendant and read the verdict aloud? Those realities elevated the discussion to a new level. Many of the prospective jurors who’d indicated on their questionnaires that they were firm supporters of the death penalty wavered when asked these questions. And if they wavered, they were certain to be rejected by the prosecution.
“If drama scares you, the really delicious challenge of improbability will likely leave you petrified. Yet improbability is a necessary concomitant of any and all drama. Improbability pounds like a heartbeat through the greatest classics of the West, from Oedipus the King to Hamlet to Othello to The Brothers Karamazov. Balzac’s Cousin Bette keeps its reader every minute on the very edge of her or his seat by being every minute on the very edge of startled disbelief.”
Juror number six was seated. That left only seats two and twelve. Then the three alternates.
The stack of index cards the clerk held grew shorter. There were fewer than forty of us left in the pool. We were quieter in the courtroom—and in the hallways during the times we’d be ordered to stand outside while some point of law was disputed. Fewer people left the building during the lunch break now. Most of us sought out quiet corners located on different floors of the dark building—places where we could eat our packed lunches and wait until the jury holding room would be unlocked prior to our return to service.
The building had few windows, except in the main lobbies near the central staircase. It was odd to consider that the administration of justice was incompatible with natural light. That characteristic heightened the more surreal aspects of the proceedings. It was easier to imagine that what was taking place was happening in some other space and time, because the events had no visible or tangible anchors in the rest of our real world experiences.
Do you believe the defendant deserves a fair trial? Do you believe the victim deserves a fair trial, too?
Jurors two and twelve were seated.
The clerk began to read the names of potential alternates. Candidates were interviewed one at a time. The litanies of questions went on an on. The pool grew smaller. Only twenty of us remained. Another day had nearly ended, and still my name had not been called.
Five candidates were interviewed. Two alternates were seated. Another name was called.
The third alternate was seated on a chair outside the juror area. The box contained extra seats for only two alternates, and death penalty cases required three. The judge apologized for this.
Will you be comfortable with being seated here, outside the jury box, for the duration of the trial?
At five-fifteen p.m., the third alternate was selected.
Those of us who remained in the jury pool understood the gravity of the event, so there was no applause. But there were audible expressions of relief. The judge ordered the bailiff to summon the other members of the jury to return to the courtroom, and take their places in the box. Fifteen quiet and somber people stood before the court as peers of the accused. They were empaneled, and the rest of us had completed our jury service.
“All of these elements, from the most intuitive to the most carefully calculated, must work together in a kind of synchrony that not only begins in intuition but ends in it, too. And how do you make your way from beginning to end? You can be guided at every step by only one intuition: your own sense of rightness. But the sense of rightness can come only after you have been guided away from the ten thousand wrong turns by your sense for what is wrong.”
But first, you must have a heart that can break.