The life and writing lessons of #MPRraccoon

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen some of my tweets this week around #MPRraccoon, the young female raccoon who scaled St. Paul’s UBS tower.

Unlike (apparently) much of the rest of the world, I was not going to be satisfied with learning that she had simply made it to the top, where traps with food and water awaited her. My main concern — once it was apparent that she wasn’t a mom with kits waiting for her somewhere nearby — was whether she was going to be “caught and released.”

“Release” rarely works out for wild animals like raccoons. They’re creatures of habit with well-defined home ranges. Take them out of that range, where they know all the best sources of shelter, food and water, and they become vulnerable to the elements, other animals, and starvation.

News media, however, couldn’t seem to nail down whether animal control or building maintenance were on the job. That made it harder for concerned citizens like me to figure out whom to call to advocate for her.

In fact, it wasn’t until long after the raccoon had, in fact, been released that we learned St. Paul Animal Control had set the traps, then turned the animal over to a wildlife management company… which then released the raccoon 34 miles away.

Sigh.

Granted: the company did consult with local rehabbers. And did release her on private land with the homeowner’s permission. Those two things together give her far better odds than some random release in a random wildlife preserve. It means that the humans are likely to know how to help her out while she’s getting her bearings, and they won’t mind when she comes looking for food. (This is what “soft release” means — giving the animal an anchor point of food, shelter and water until she can work out where to find it elsewhere.)

Few people understand these differences, though. We’ve so lost touch with our natural world that we’ve reduced everyone and everything — wild species, vegetation, even each other — to simple binaries. We assume that all living things have the same needs, and we view those needs through the lens of our own understanding and experiences.

When you’re not a warm and fuzzy writer

In some regards, life has not been especially warm and fuzzy. In others, I’m terribly sheltered and privileged. It can therefore be hard to know when to stay in my own lane as a middle-aged suburban white mom. This is probably why I write horror and dark crime fiction: it gives me some wiggle room, a different frame for the world I observe. A way to explore the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy areas of life, such as toxic relationships that start out so well and end so badly.

That may be why I gravitate toward fiction that doesn’t pull any punches: toxic relationships have a way of warping your perception towards life, and you tend to need validation that what you’ve experienced is, in fact, as good or as bad as you think. If it can’t be validated, you need a way to adjust your outlook.

So, I seek out fiction that makes me face reality, and I try to write it that way, too.

As an “authorpreneur,” on the one hand, I worry that it would be better business to write what many people seem to want: warm and fuzzy happy endings that don’t confront the harsh truths about likely outcomes.

As a reader, on the other hand, I know full well that people like me are everywhere, asking what happens to the raccoon after she’s caught and/or relocated, to the children after they’re separated from their parents, to the ecosystem after the predators are removed.

These are the kinds of questions children ask. As a mother, I know that children are frequently better at confronting life’s harsh realities than we adults are; witness the popularity of dystopian young adult fiction.

Really what we mean, when we try to avoid those questions and answers, is that we don’t want to come eye-to-eye with our own vulnerability. It’s deeply unsettling to us, the notion that we might not have all the answers or resources we need to overcome some obstacle.

Of course, many of us were raised in “an era in which the liberal democracies celebrated (prematurely, of course) ‘the end of history’.” So for us, making it to the top of the building is one thing. Finding out that that might not be the end of the story — well, that’s like facing the likelihood that even at the top of whatever goal you (or your society) hoped to attain, “making it” involves making choices you’d prefer to think you don’t have to make.

My hope as a writer is to connect with the readers who, like me, want to confront our own vulnerabilities — including our inclinations toward utopia. By connecting with human or nonhuman characters who struggle and prevail, not just over a single obstacle but over the whole chain of them, I believe that we can:

  • Put our own struggles into perspective.
  • Forgive ourselves.
  • Connect with others who struggle in the same ways
  • Just maybe, use that newfound sense of community to go forth and make things better — not just for ourselves, but for all who share our planet.

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