The Caskets of Batesville

Something new from Clive Barker?  Peter Straub?  Another sequel to Psycho?

Nope.  It’s not a novel, it’s not a book at all.  It’s just a thing.  Spontaneous and demanding of my attention.

I can’t shake it until I get it out of my head.  And into yours.

Writing is like that, as you already know.  Because you are a writer.

This post is about writing.  About life.  Something to share with other writers. 

Or anyone, writer or not, who isn’t done.

Or even more so, anyone who thinks they are.

It’s a true thing, too

It happened to me during a road trip – still underway – that gifted me with nearly 20 hours of interstate solitude well in excess of 70 miles per hour.  Amazing what so much dreary monochromatic scenery does for the writer’s introspective imagination.

Between Palm Springs and Phoenix — that’s as dreary as it gets — while busy outlining my next novel in my head, I came up fast behind yet another 18-wheeler.  One of thousands I’d passed on this trip.  I respect those guys, they know how to share the road, especially in contrast to the occasional clueless Camry-driving airhead cruising in the left lane below the speed limit. 

Don’t ever be that guy. 

I like trucks.  A holdover from childhood fascination, one of many, all of which I cling to with age-resistant melancholy.  I always notice the graphics on the big trailers, just for the hell of it.

Sometimes I can tell what’s inside.  Sometimes not.

Trucks are like people in that way.

This particular truck, though, changed my day.

Almost wrecked it, in the sense that it became my day in both a dark and beautiful way. 

Dark because it linked to another of those childhood fascinations that took the form of terror.  I’ll tell you more about that in the next post, because it, too, relates to one of the most basic truths of storytelling.

Beautiful, because it also inspired today’s post, three days later.  Which I’m finally, right here and now, getting out of my head and into yours.

The truck was full of boxes.  Nearly 100 of them, by my rough calculations.

Caskets.  Coffins. 

The side of the truck proudly, yet in an appropriately understated way, showed the logo for the Batesville Casket Company. 

My immediate thought: inside that truck was the inevitable eternal home for 100 people still spread across the planet, still living and breathing, with no idea whatsoever that their final abode was heading east on I-10 at that very moment.

Empty now.  But with a destiny as certain as my own.

And yours. 

Sobering.  I wondered if they were done

Some were certainly already lying on the bed upon which they would die –  literally and figuratively — others driving in the cars that would kill them.  Still others were out there simply living normally, tending to children, absorbing the latest Lindsay Lohan news on television, silently worrying about their 401K balance.

Then I wondered if any of them might be writers.

And if they were, if the story they were writing – their last – would be the one they’d want to be remembered by. 

If it would be a parting gift to the rest of us.  Or an unburdening, a confession, a hopeful vision, and vicarious dream.

If they were writing it the right way, informed and empowered.  Or if they were just wandering through a sea of options with no awareness of what works and what doesn’t.

I wondered if the story they were living – we are all living a story, writing each page as we go, and in complete charge of how it ends – was the one they’d script for themselves.

Story planning, life planning, intention, discipline, values, choices… same consequences. 

As Donald Miller says in his brilliant book, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, the best, most rewarding lives inspire funerals in which the attendees share a common thought: what a shame, he/she wasn’t done.  His/her story was unfinished.

That kind of grief honors a life well-spent. 

A story well told.

I pray that my own story is still going strong – indeed, that it is a blazing, raging fire of passion – when that day arrives on my calendar.  You are all invited.

Writing is my vehicle on that journey.  It is traveling east on I-1o, in the shadow of that truck, trying to out-race the clock.

As the truck faded into my rearview, I found myself overcome with gratitude that I am a writer.  That I can scribble these thoughts onto a blank sheet of white software-generated space, and create something that might touch someone, somewhere, that I’ve never met and never will.

Someone who, by virtue of reading this, realizes they aren’t done.

And perhaps that their story – on paper, and in life – isn’t the one they hope to stake their legacy on.  That it isn’t worth the time, which continues to tick, as they move forward toward a destination they cannot comprehend.

To connect, just once.  To pay it forward, and know that it will live on after me.

That is what it means to be a writer.

If you are one, too, you are already connected to the destination.  

Because for us, more than any other avocation I can think of, the journey is the point.  To have started, to persevere, is to have arrived.

The objective isn’t to publish.  The objective is to connect with someone you’ve never met and never will.

Or not.  To have strived for that linkage, to risk, to reach out, is the point.

And the story we leave behind is the gift that bears our name.

Write your story.  Live the story that defines you.

That gift goes both ways.

Never be done.

As for me… I’m thinking cremation.  Those boxes still creep me out.

****

Please buy my new ebook, about getting published before you die, before either one of us does.  Thank you.

You can read a review HERE, HERE and HERE.

Photo credit: Michal Minter

15 Comments

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15 Responses to The Caskets of Batesville

  1. Larry, how is it that when you write I feel you standing next to me, warm hand on shoulder, offering words of encouragement that seeps down to my bones.

    Wow.

    Thank you seems shallow for what I’m trying to describe, but it’s the closest I can get. (Thank you.)
    _/|\_ (~Namaste)

  2. Hey Larry,

    I know that feeling exactly. Not just the driving-by-coffins thing necessarily, but driving by some defining moment and then boggling at the implications. You’re right — I think it’s lucky we’re writers so we can record the moment. But I also believe these stories and extrapolations appear before us because we’re writers. How many people would just look at that truck and go “So what?”

    I disagree with Donald Miller though — oh, how I wish “The Last Tycoon” had been finished! I am glad that Mordecai Richler finished his last work (Barney’s Version). I understand — and appreciate — the sentiment about the death of a writer, but doesn’t it make your heart go out to the writing when it’s left unfinished?

    ~Graham

  3. Damn fine write, once again Larry.

    I had the same type of feeling yesterday. It was raining, it took me 3 hours to get home from work and I had plenty of time to think. I approached what looked like a deer standing on the edge of the road. Getting closer I realized it was a German Shephard. He was standing, frozen with a blank, helpless look on his face. A 10-foot long trail of blood followed him from the middle of the road.

    It wasn’t until about 1/4 mile after I passed him that the realization of what I just saw hit me. There was the dog. He didn’t think that he’d be standing there (dying I guess). Somewhere, someone was worried about where he was, and there I was casually driving past. Made me think of how crazy life is and how crazy the stories of lives(including those of animals) are. I just knew I wanted more time to do whatever before I ended up like that dog.

    Your post reminds me that I must remember to do something meaningful today.
    Thank you.

  4. Martha Miller

    I agree, Larry, with all the comments about a great post. Having driven that same trip a few times, I know the way one’s mind can wander to strange and wonderful places, especially during the stretch of lonely desert from Palm Springs to Phoenix, past Buckeye. I’m hoping you’ll even write a short story about the caskets of Batesville. I’m already conjuring up Stephen King horrors about them.
    Thanks for the inspiration so nice and early this morning.

  5. Our most influential legacy when passing may well be the dreams and hopes we’ve inspired in others. That’s one of the best rewards for a writer.

    Especially when you come back the next time around and your family has all your books on the shelf and on their e-readers. Now you can finish that series!

  6. amy

    Larry, your post title immediately caught my eye because for five years my husband was a sales rep for Batesville. I had never given so much as a passing thought to caskets before this, but afterward, would often see one of the guys’ Batesville trucks on I-25 and would wave hello. They’re cool that way.

    At your recommendation, I just read Miller’s book and LOVED it. My story thus far isn’t about canoeing down rivers or traveling the globe, but just being mom to my six, writing in the corners of my day, and keeping ahead of the laundry. One thing I wish Miller had acknowledged was that living a life, a story of worth, doesn’t have to be glamorous. Changing diapers certainly isn’t. But it’s story, and a good one, nonetheless.

    BTW, have you ever observed a cremation? You might change your mind on the whole box-in-the-ground idea:)

    Thanks for a great post.

  7. This is why it’s important to have a polished first draft. 🙂

    A lot of advice is given on just writing the dang thing, polish it later. One of my biggest fears is dying with a crappy first draft on my computer. Maybe this is why some writers are recluses; they are afraid to leave the house, afraid death is just around the corner, afraid they won’t be around to tighten that last wordy sentence.

  8. @Amy — good point about your story. Doesn’t have to be glam. And thanks for ruining my cremation plans, :-), I try not to visualize that one. Not sure which is the darker notion. Glad I won’t be here for either. Write on, girl.

    @Tricia — the reaper ‘ll get us inside the house, too, if it’s our time. So go out there and live huge, write passionately, and leave a good story behind. Thanks for chipping in on this. L.

  9. Larry,

    I live just a tad north of Batesville, Mississippi where this company is located. I get the reminder you share in your story every time I get on the highway and go to Batesville for my grocery shopping…

    A constant reminder that life is too short, live your dreams and make sure that you are doing what you want to do with those who matter most to you — because you never know when one of those boxes will be for you.

    Thanks for the most excellent read — as usual!

  10. (Please forgive the double post…my laptop has a mind of its own)

    This post gave me a scare.
    Not a “Stephen King” type scare…a worse kind.
    When I read the line “I wonder if they were done” my first thought was “Oh no, he’s going to write a book similar to mine, and here I thought I had something original.”
    Naturally I’m not so vain to think I could come up with something completely unique…but that’s not the point. The point is…well it’d be easier for me to just share the synopsis of the novel I’m working on and let you see for yourself.
    The working title is “Unfinished Business” and the synopsis is;

    We all have things to do…until we die.
    When you die, your ‘to do’ list gets cancelled.
    That is, unless your corpse is prepared for burial by Meg Seabury.
    For thirteen unremarkable years, Meg has embalmed and prepared corpses at the Peaceful Slumber Funeral Parlor. But when she prepares the corpse of an 82-year-old World War II veteran something extraordinary happens. Suddenly, she becomes acutely aware of an unfinished task that had been weighing heavily on the man’s mind and she feels compelled to finish it.
    Her next client is a woman who died in a tragic car crash while driving to see her suicidal brother. Meg soon finds herself visiting the brother, determined to give him the will to live.
    Suddenly, each new corpse brings with it a new mission and she is powerless to stop it. To Meg, it’s a bizarre, nightmarish curse until she realizes that she is the last hope for these souls to rest in peace. But when she embalms the corpse of a convicted murderer bent on revenge, it becomes a deadly threat to her own life.
    Detective Dave Steere is investigating night club owner Mike McMahon for racketeering. When McMahon is murdered and the evidence points to Meg, Steere’s gut tells him that something isn’t right. McMahon had plenty of enemies, but Steere can’t find any connection to Meg.
    Now he has to figure out if he’s tracked down a murderer, a victim… or something he can’t explain.

    At the risk of flattering myself…great minds think alike?

  11. @Tim — just wanted to say, I really like your story concept. Lots of layers to it. My advice (which you didn’t ask for, but here goes…) is to make sure it’s very rich in thematic depth, it has to rise above the level of another M. Night Shyamalan fiasco or something on the CW.

    Speaking of… this reminds me of a TV show starring Eliza Dushku called “Tru Calling” (2003-2005… rent it if you’re not familiar… almost an identical concept).

    Yes, great minds to think alike. Successful minds find their own spin. Go for it, Tim, a great start on a terrific concept. Now you just have those five other core competencies to add to the mix.

  12. Kelly

    Hello, Larry. Kelly here.
    Liked the post, but experienced a side effect from you getting the thoughts out of your head and into mine.
    The thing sent too many ideas careening around the inside of my skull.
    I drive the highway every day, and wonder (also every day) about those who don’t know life will be over in two minutes around the next bend.
    Knowing that I could potentially be that person.
    Did I leave my legacy the way I wanted it to be when I left the house? Will anyone finish my book edits, or will they quietly throw my laptop off the dock into deep water?
    Few people consciously decide when to be done, to choose the time and circumstance of their own death. And it seems to me, many of those opted to check out because of something too overwhelming to deal with, to complete.
    Did get some good what-ifs:
    What if all the caskets in the truck were already occupied? -OR-
    What if ONE casket was occupied by a murder victim, and the funeral home discovered their latest shipment of coffins came with something extra? -OR-
    What if driving past the casket truck made your number come up on the heavenly big board , and death would greet you around the corner? -OR-
    What if the clueless Camry-driving airhead is a modern-day Grim Reaper, going the *wrong way* in the left-hand lane on the highway…
    Enjoyed having my marbles shaken by this. No doubt strange dreams are on the way tonight.
    Cheers, Kelly

  13. April

    I don’t know whether I enjoyed the blog entry or the comments more. The blog entry inspired thoughts of a tribe of vampires or some other nomadic group of undead on the move. The comments about cremation firmed my resolved to simply believe that once I’m gone what happens to my body is a moot point. And regarding Tru Calling-wasn’t it all the same date over and over with the details of the day varying each episode?
    Larry, I really value your posts. They help me become a better reader, critiquer and story constructer. Thank you:]

  14. Larry, i’d like you to know that I will be attending your funeral.

    O . o

    Haha. But really: excellent insights on writing and life which are synonyms.. I too have had those deep existential thoughts while cruising on the interstate in my 98′ Nissan, on my way back to New York to visit my family.

    I am AMAZED that all it takes is a simple hand jerk to turn the wheel, moving the car to the next lane, to be crushed under the wheels of a semi. That’s all that really separates us from the death — the otherside … a simple hand jerk.

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