“Write what you know” is an adage that can both help and handicap writers. It clearly seems a source of Mathias B. Freese’s collection of short stories, Down to a Sunless Sea, and may also serve as a handicap.
Freese is a psychotherapist who will tell you that these stories take us “into the minds of troubled, complex human beings.” He uses a variety of styles because the stories are were written “to express emotional states, thereby requiring different approaches and voices. Yet while many of the characters might well be composites of people he dealt with both as a psychotherapist and as a licensed clinical social worker, they are also reflections of his own life experiences.
For example, the character in “I’ll Make It, I Think” suffers from cerebral palsy, as did Freese’s cousin. The character in the short story gives names to various body parts, calling his damaged right hand and arm and his damage left leg Ralph and Lon, respectively, while naming his penis David. While he refers to himself as “Schmuck,” it is clear he has worked to cope with his disabilities. At the same time, he recognizes the reality of his struggles from the story’s opening sentences:
It’s always been this way; it’s always going to be like this. I know it, and there’s no changing it.
Sometimes I can take it, almost, and sometimes, you know, I can’t take it and I want to cut my throat.
Such harsh reality is present in the minds of many of the characters. Freese even expresses it from the harsh realities of his own life. “For A While, Here, In This Moment” was written for his daughter, who suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and eventually committed suicide. In it, the character openly ponders the purpose of existence. “Which is worse, death or the disease itself? …. The appalling choice is all I have, or it appears.”
Some of the other damaged psyches that appear include the award-winning “Herbie,” the story of a boy physically and psychologically abused by his father with the added impact of an almost emotionless mother; “Echo,” which explores a man who, for whatever reason, cannot maintain attachments with anyone; and, “Nicholas,” with whom we share time in his “slow learner” class and begin to grasp his desire for respect.
For me, though, the two strongest pieces are “Alabaster” and “Little Errands.”
The former uses a nine-year-old boy sharing a bench with a wooden bench with an elderly Holocaust survivor as the vehicle to explore the woman’s loss of childhood. It is a concise yet insightful view into how her numbered concentration camp tattoo is an external representation of what can not otherwise be easily seen — that even the children in the camps who survived are missing the life experiences of growing up.
“Little Errands” takes us inside the world of an obsessive compulsive through essentially one simple event. The story is basically the thoughts of this individual as he worries about whether the parking ticket and carpet payments he put in a mailbox were actually mailed and will actually arrive.
Other stories are not as strong, perhaps because they reflect Freese’s belief that he isn’t writing for the reader, but for himself and his own understanding. This permutation of the “write what you know” idea means the stories provide glimpses into events and personalities that can seem without context. In fact, that is one of the downfalls of Down to a Sunless Sea.
Not only is this largely a sunless world view, we are seeing snippets of life. Snippets can provide insight but not necessarily comprehension. For example, although the foreword to the book tells us that “For A While, Here, In This Moment” is about his daughter’s “physical agony and despair,” outside research is required to learn the cause and end result. Readers need not require an author to expose or reveal all aspects of their personal life. But in writing for himself the average reader may be deprived of greater understanding of the character, something that would not otherwise prevent grasping the more universal elements of her feelings.
In the end, though, these flaws do not detract from the fact that even a sunless world view sheds light on the human experience.
Life only asks that it continue (I inflict meaning).
“For A While, Here, In This Moment,” Mathias B. Freese, Down to a Sunless Sea