Telling Details

I wrote this post a couple of days ago and accidentally hit the panic button. Sorry for the false alarm, but I didn’t want it to be published in the same day as my last post. Let me try this again…

Two days ago, I saw a woman get hit by a car, but I didn’t know that’s what I was seeing at the time. As I replay that moment again and again in my mind, I am shocked at how slowly I figured it out.

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 2.14.27 PM

The Intersection

I don’t remember seeing the car hit her. I just remember this:

Someone yelled. It was a rough, urgent, explosive bark. And then I saw a large pile of garbage lying in the street. Did you get that? Garbage. I’m still appalled that I thought a living, breathing human being looked like a pile of garbage.

It was dusk, just after sunset. I was on my way to pick up a pizza, and stopped at an intersection, waiting for the light to change. Then, the explosive yell, and there they were, black and white garbage bags flopping slightly, as if being blown by a puff of breeze, so gently. Two pedestrians raced toward the pile as it began to rock. They tried to help the garbage bags pick themselves up. But the best the pile could do was to droop to one side. One foot flopped. A hand pressed down against the street.

And then I figured out that the pile was a woman. With long, dark hair. She had been face down on the pavement, her hair pouring onto the street. She wore black pants and shoes and a cream-colored jacket, and she had been carrying a couple of black shopping bags. But her body parts weren’t arranged like a human walking across the street. They were upended, folded in on each other, crumpled and flopping without purpose. And the combination of black and white reinforced the image of garbage bags, litter that is so common in the city.



I still tremble when I think of this, how quickly we can go from being human to being a pile of garbage. How our perceptions depend so much on context.

And since I’m a writer, I start thinking about how I can use this. The experience brings home how important it is to select the details of the stories we tell. Those details cement the belief that what’s being described has actually happened. Verisimilitude at its best. In this case, the accident did happen, and you believe me because of the details I’ve shared with you. I know that if I’m ever going to write a scene about someone who’s been hit by a car, I now have an inkling of how I will tell that part of the story.

But what disturbs me are two things: 1) that I can file this away so coldly to use in the future and 2) that I thought a human being was as pile of garbage. This is a horror from which I may never recover.

I am still shaking.




34 thoughts on “Telling Details

  1. dkatiepowellart says:

    I am so sorry for both the woman and for your experience.

    Experiences become our writing fodder. It doesn’t diminish the shock of what you saw nor how you experienced it, or her, as garbage.

    I read yesterday of an explosion in Port Orchard, WA; and as i read the article on the horrid blowing up of two retirees in their home, then I read that they could not identify them, then I read one worked at a bank… well, I immediately had a mini-plot going on these two nice people whose home accidentally blew up and no one would think of them actually dropping two other bodies in that place because they had embezzled money just before retiring and and and… it can’t be helped. Writing plots is a sickness!

  2. m lewis redford says:

    as with ANY observation, it is not the whole story; it is NEVER the whole story: there is always someview or somethought ALTERNATE/PARALLEL/OBTUSE/JUXTAPOSED/TANGENTIAL to that very same initial observation – that is why creative writing is always more than just account, because the observation, and what it means, are all collapsed into the same image/symbol (depending on the skill of the writer), (and the skill of the reader), [and, while I’m on it, I feel I need to throw in a quote from the theologian Paul Tillich, “symbols participate in that to which they point”]; there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the observation that the woman was a piece of garbage unless you believe that this observation is the whole story; there is nothing incompatible about having had this image AND feeling compassion for the woman [‘s loss of life?]; holding on to shocking images may be both the curse and the tools of being a writer at the same time – it is what the writer does with it that makes the difference;

    thank you for sharing, I have thought about that woman (especially “her hair pouring onto the street”) and cared for her because you wrote about her, (and I know you, blogwise, and you had that experience and shock, and you chose to share it although it is causing you anxiety, and I chose to read it in full, and I had the time to respond to your writing and the woman’s event, and I wanted to respond out of concern for the worry you showed in your writing), otherwise I would never have known, and I would never have had that care for you both … here, take it

  3. Carrie Rubin says:

    What a horrible event to witness. And how sad for the woman. I hope she’ll be okay.

    I don’t think it’s cold to file it away. As you point out, you’re shaking from it, and you will think about this for a long time so it’s clearly affected you. It may even wake you from sleep. So using the experience as a way of making your writing of a similar event more real doesn’t seem cold. It seems both cathartic and a good way to invoke empathy in others. And that’s always a good thing.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thank you for these thoughts, Carrie. I’ve spent time Googling news stories to see if the incident ever made it into the paper or on the TV, and I find so many others just like it. A two-year-old being killed by a car. A 51-year-old woman killed by a car two blocks from where we live…it seems that there could be an infinite number of tragedies from which to choose. I, too, hope that she will be OK, since I haven’t been able to find any information on this accident. My hope is that they took her to the hospital, treated a concussion, perhaps, or a broken bone, kept her for observation and then allowed her to go home. I hope she gets(got) to go home and goes back to living her life. And since I can’t keep my mind from revisiting this event over and over again, I must write about it. Thank you for providing a more broad perspective while I struggle to make sense of this event.

        • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

          The driver stopped. Got out of her car, tried to dial on her cell phone but was shaking too badly. A pedestrian called 911. While other people tried to help the woman who’d been hit, the driver moved her car to open up a lane for other cars to pass. I stayed in the lane where the woman was lying with my emergency flashers on until the ambulance came. Thankfully, they arrived in a couple of minutes.

  4. robert okaji says:

    I don’t detect any coldness in your “filing.” You witnessed something. You processed (or are still processing) it. You may write about it someday, perhaps in an oblique way, but your experience of this event will flavor what you write. This is neither bad nor good – it’s what we, as writers, do.

  5. Lady Fancifull says:

    And my take on this experience is that we are a patterning animal. Our brains wired to create sensible and meaningful immediate explanations for the information received. People being hit by cars in front of us are not commonplace occurrences, so the most usual and likely arrangement of the visual will be what the mind tells us the pattern means. Nothing shows your humanity more than the distress you feel at what the pattern of visual information suggested first. As for the writing side, again, we are also, as part of being a patterning animal, one which takes that further, one which orders into wider meaning, and creates story. I do believe this all arises in a creature which is not only conscious but self-conscious, that can place itself in a river of time and space. Self- consciousness makes for self-reflection. We don’t just experience, we observe, we analyse, we put experience into wider context, we learn. Not to stand outside and be able to observe experience would be to remain in an overwhelmed infant world of chaos. And those of us who don’t write, don’t paint, don’t compose the world, need, oh we surely do, those who will help us to waken and observe our world anew by rescuing us from our somnabulist cliche view of our drift through our lives.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      LF, thank you for this. It makes complete sense and you’ve expressed your thoughts with eloquence and passion. You are definitely a writer, one that can put many thoughts/ideas/concepts into context. Thank you!

  6. Kate Johnston says:

    So scary, so moving. I think you did what any witness to a tragedy or crime would do — absorb the information and translate/understand to the best of your ability. Another witness will have seen completely different images and understood them in their own way. The fact you are a writer only means you know that there is a beginning, middle, and end to this one specific event. We’re trained to take events and turn them into meaningful moments, stories.

    I really hope that the woman will be okay, as well as the driver and any other witnesses involved, and you.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thanks, Kate. You’re right. Everyone has their own perception of what happened, given that we all filter what we see through our history of experiences. I do keep Googling to see if anything shows up. As it stands right now, I think she must be OK (at least physically) since I haven’t seen any mention in the paper. As far as the psychological healing that needs to happen, the driver/the woman who was hit/the bystanders will, most likely, all be affected for a period longer than it takes the physical body to heal.

  7. Meagan Schultz says:

    I, too, am sorry you had to witness this – what a terrible afternoon. You do capture the moment so well – and I wonder, would you have captured/remembered it differently if you were not a writer? (tangential thought, I know, and don’t mean to minimize the experience, I just always find metacognition so interesting). Thank you for sharing!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thanks, Meagan. An interesting question. I do think that what someone does for a living, or what they’re intensely involved with, colors their experiences in general. So, yes, I think being a writer does influence my perception and memory. It would be an interesting exercise to write about this incident from a variety of perspectives. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  8. FictionFan says:

    Oh Jilanne, what a horrible experience for all concerned. I suspect you’re right that the woman is probably recovering, since a death would surely have made the local news. I hope you are recovering too…

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, it helps that the dreaded article has not appeared in the news. Human tendency often puts the awfulness of unforeseen events like airplane crashes at the top of the list of things to fear, while the dailiness of accidents involving cars continues as a matter of course. Very few bite their nails when they get into a car or walk across the street, but so many are nervous about flying in a plane. Interesting thing about human psychology.

  9. Emily Myers says:

    Thanks for sharing this. You made my legs go weak reading the details of what you saw. I believe writing is a way of processing our experiences regardless of profession and what’s fascinating is how the brain catches up with what it is trying to process – the more shocking, the more the delay. I too, hope the woman will fully recover, and of course, you find some peace. In filing the ‘material’ you are simply looking for new ways to convey, among other things, how fragile life is we all need to be reminded of that.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, Emily, you are quite right. Your statement “the more shocking, the more the delay” rings true. And I agree that processing our experiences through writing is not solely the territory of those who write, but I do believe we think about our experiences differently in relation to our profession. My brother, for example, is an ER physician, so he would have processed this experience very differently from me. He would have been out of the car and taking charge immediately, doing triage, ordering a bystander to call 911, making sure no one moved her unless it was clear she didn’t have a spinal injury, etc. Me? I observe, process, and write. Now that I write this, I’m thinking I didn’t do enough at the time, but there were others who were already helping, and I couldn’t have added anything to what was already being done. I guess my response was OK. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Mrs. P says:

        Violent incidents can be quite shocking for anyone and the fact that you stayed until help arrived makes it quite natural that you would follow up in the news to see what the outcome was from her accident.

        Having been an active participant (as in passer by) in two serious car injuries in which children were transported by ambulance. Not only was I shaken over the incident, I followed up on the news reports and found nothing.

        As I write this, I realize there was an odd connection between both incidents. The first one occurred in my early twenties after a girl riding a bike was hit by a car (hit and run). I sent my boyfriend to call 911 but felt helpless because I did not know First Aid. I was able to get a blanket on her and handled crowd control, but didn’t know what to do with an unconscious person. By great fortune, an off duty paramedic arrived within minutes and took over.

        As a result of that accident I was determined to learn First Aid. And even though I took the class over and over again, I still felt uncertain about my ability to actually step up and use it. Fast forward about five years, I took the First Aid Trainer course so that I could teach others and that blew away all my fears of helping others.

        In fact, about a week after the course I was wrapping up a conference when I heard a big crash outside on the street. I interrupted the person I was talking to and said that I knew First Aid and had to go help…which I did

        Perceptions are just that…what you understood from your observation with the data you had at hand. Sometimes reality can be so horrible your mind can alter perception so that it’s not really horrible. I’m sure somewhere this experience will serve you well…in a positive way. And as far as writing fodder…it is what it is…use it!

        • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

          I’m sorry that you’ve had these experiences where you’ve needed to know first aid. Quite disturbing memories. But I admire your determination to face your fears, learn first aid, use it, and then teach it. I’ve only learned CPR but don’t know that I could ever really use it correctly in an emergency situation. I would most likely try, since doing nothing in that situation pretty much guarantees a poor outcome. And I think your take on perception is quite accurate. Our minds do what they will to make sense or protect us from a situation. If the need arises, I will definitely use it. Cheers!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, I haven’t seen any newspaper account that would suggest otherwise, thankfully. I haven’t had nightmares, but I have had times when the scene replays in my head so much that I’ve had to consciously think about other things. I’m glad that everyone is so supportive about using this experience in my writing, should the need present itself. it makes me feel less like a cold-hearted observer.

  10. Claire Hennessy says:

    I can only echo the comments of everyone else. Horrible incident to witness but you described it beautifully (if that doesn’t sound too odd). Hope the woman made a full recovery and you carry on writing!

  11. Ste J says:

    It’s not cold to file it away my friend, it is a shock to the system and one that needs to be coped with. We all do that in different ways and that you are talking about it is a good thing. The mind is a funny beast but I would probably have thought the same thoughts as you, it is rare to see something such as this happen so when it does the mind finds it tough to adjust. You have a big supporting crew though to help you through.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      In the days (and now weeks) since this happened, I’ve stopped feeling so stunned. Working through this experience by writing (also made easier by not seeing any bad news in the newspaper) has been a huge help. Not to mention the kind and supportive comments from all of you. Thanks, Ste J!

  12. Britt Skrabanek says:

    Goodness, Jilanne! How scary.

    The closest experience I can even think of was that first summer we moved out here and I saw a girl drive over one of our many mini cliffs. A tree caught the car and people saved her. She was okay, but it scared the crap out of me. When she was on the phone with her mom, it was so emotional and moving. I think the best feeling we can have from these situations is a deeper appreciation for life.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, you are quite right. It’s been something I’ve been thinking a lot about since that event. That girl was soooo lucky. It sounds like one of those things that only happens in the movies. I’m glad she was OK for her sake and yours.

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