Meet Murray Dunlap. He's a writer. He wrote stories years ago, and he's still writing now. But, in between the then and the now, something happened. He got amnesia.
LL: First off, tell us about your situation and what happened to you. Feel free to be as brief or as detailed as you want.
MD: OK. on June 7th, 2008 (6-7-08 as creepy as that is), I was just driving down our street, taking some recycling in, when a stranger ran a red light and smashed into me. It was crazy. Pushed me right into some friends who were minding their own business driving in the next lane. The thing is, I can’t remember a thing. Weird as it seems, a very near death experience with zero memory. None. Literally, it may be the closest I’ve come to death, and try as I might, I've got nothing. Nothing.
And the following year was so horrible, there are no words. Just anger. And fear. My God, the fear. I was in a wheelchair when I came out of the coma, which I was in (coma) for three months, and never had any doctor convince me that it was 100% clear that I would walk again. They assured me I would walk. But I was nervous. They mumbled all sorts of things about my brain and legs not talking, but I always felt like there was a very real chance I would never walk again.
So day-by-day, I went to therapy and gave it my all. What else could I do? You would be surprised by the determination that comes over a person when walking is on the line. Therapy 5 days a week and I made up my own therapy on weekends. Sprinkle in doctors here and there, and then you’ve got yourself a recovery process. Damn, that gets old! I think it may be the closest I’ve come to insanity yet.
I’ve come awfully close to dying about a dozen times, but this, nothing compares to it. Most near death experiences are just like you would imagine: extremely dangerous, but for an instant. Compare just about anything to a coma for 3 months and that followed by a full year in a wheelchair, and that followed by 6 months using a walker, like an old man. It simply makes no comparison. Like the time I was run over by a motor boat, while intense, was over almost immediately. So then a trip to the ER and some stitches and, like most accidents, then it’s over.
Or when I jogging at college, and some professor’s daughter was coming around the corner too fast, and not looking. So I was put on the hood with both hands pressed flat against the windshield. And was close enough to see her face, and despite my hopes, knew she would slam on brakes from the look in her eyes. So I went flying off the hood and went flying into the street until gravity tore me down and I landed, on my left knee, in the same very hard street. Campus security swarmed me, either out of concern for my safety or concern for my lawsuit-capable parents. I’d day the latter is more likely.
So I guess you could say I’ve been lucky. Or it’s just as easy to say I’ve been awfully unlucky depending on your point of view. I'm not dead yet...
LL: I should mention to everyone that the reason I met you was because the literary journal I work for, SmokeLong Quarterly, accepted a story that you had written before the accident. What is it like to look at your own work without having any memory of writing it?
MD: Very weird. Very. It is as if I have pulled a rabbit out of a hat and not known where the rabbit came from. Truly. That weird. And it is as if I am reading it for the first time. I have a fuzzy feeling I know what is about to happen, but then I'll get confused. I'm on lots of medicine!
LL: How has your writing changed because of what happened?
MD: I don't think about anything the same way. Nothing. I have much less sympathy for problems that have no real danger at all. When I have a character I hate, I simply have to have them complain about anything stupid. Anything. It makes my skin crawl to hear people say how "rough" they have it when it makes an instant comparison to being in a wheelchair. Even if they don't realize they have done it. But for my writing, I think little things, like love and care, are more important to me than ever. Ever. I could have shoved a billion dollars at anyone after the wreck and they could not have made me walk... So. Money is meaningless to me now. But I think in writing, it makes me more attuned to characters showing love for one another. Love is MUCH more important to me than ever before.
(You can read two of Murray's stories, here. The Dogs Go Too was written before his accident. Times I Nearly Died was written after.)
LL: To come back to writing after the amnesia implies that you've dedicated yourself to this art form twice. Is that true? Was there any possibility of you NOT being a writer after the accident?
MD: Yes. I was so dissoriented and medicated that, literally, I am just now feeling like I can try again! Weird to focus on something for so long and then be forced to take just under 3 years off...
But it's getting better. And my memory is improving enough that I can remember at the end of a sentence what the beginning was about... It was that bad.
LL: Do you you think there is a universal consensus (or should there be) about what is dramatic or important to write about versus what isn't? I think a lot of writers would argue that the subject of the story isn't as important as the way that subject is written about. Do you disagree?
MD: I think every writer has to share the way he or she sees things. Whatever way that may be. I think I agree that the subject is less important than the way the story is told. If it wasn't, there would be nothing but horror movies. But what we've all learned is that yes, it can be interesting to see or read about a person in danger of losing their life, but in the end, it is the life itself and the connections made that truly reveal something.
LL: Do we as writers have a job to do, a common goal, as you see it?
MD: Yes. What writers do is complete our understanding of life itself. That and give people an emotional ride that they might not get otherwise. And to see themselves expressed through words that help life make sense. I'm starting to sound very pretentious I think, but really, I would like to think "our" job here is that important. Sort of a psychologist for the species.
LL: Do you have any additional insight from your experience that other writers might find useful?
MD: I guess anytime a writer thinks a character is "in it", they should take a glance at the handicapped or insane and realize just how bad things really can get. Maybe spend a day without walking, if they can?
LL: And, what projects are you working on now?
MD: I've been working very hard with Kevin Watson of Press 53 on an anthology that we've named "What Doesn't Kill You...". Should be wonderful! Our book launch will be at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, TN on October 9. It has been a lifesaver to have a job to do when I have been unable to drive to a job (or anywhere) and have become bored to tears. But I will say that what didn't kill me made me a better writer.
Murray, thanks so much for telling us about your amazing story!