Monday, February 9, 2009

On Death and the Writer

In the third half of life, we confront death more often as childhood heroes and icons, aging family members, and even contemporaries pass away. I’ve been thinking a lot about the final passage this past month after reacting to the deaths of five people with varying degrees of psychic distance from me, from my 92 year old mother-in-law to the esteemed writer John Updike.

In the hands of a writer, death is a useful plot device to engage or hook a reader. Along with love, it is one of the most common events around which we build stories. Death or its possibility can create suspense (will it happen; if so, how; and if not, how is death avoided?) or mystery (why did it happen, or who did it?), reveal personality (what do we learn about the central figures of the story?), and provoke temporary or permanent psychological changes (how do they react?) that may lead to change or action (what do they do as a result?) The death of a bad guy provides a catharsis while that of the personality with whom we’ve bonded or for whom we feel sympathy prompts a sense of loss. Although it’s not always easy to kill off a favorite character—sometimes they don’t let you, as a writer you are largely in control.

What strikes me now is the contrast between my purposeful and manipulative handling of death in my fictional worlds and the complexity of my emotional states this past month to the five deaths, each touching me in different ways. There was sadness in all cases, though the nature and intensity of the sadness varied. But there was also shock, at receiving unexpected news of a sudden death; anxiety waiting for the anticipated phone call; relief that the difficult days were over; fear of not knowing the right words of comfort; empathy because of common experiences with loved ones’ illnesses; nostalgia at calling up distant memories; regret at not having known someone better; longing for more time; amusement on hearing a funny anecdote about the deceased; envy at a person’s accomplishments; and even guilt at being able to get on with my own life when a friend is grieving.

My reactions are causing me to assess whether I am capturing that complexity of sometimes contradictory emotions or perhaps falling into what Ann Hood (Creating Character Emotions, Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998) calls the “curse of writing like a writer”—of filtering or watering down the emotions of my characters as I write the way I think I am supposed to write. Am I too busy advancing my plot that I don’t give my characters space to react in convincing ways? Hood advises to “write like yourself” without necessarily replicating what happens in real life. This mantra is a great reminder to use my experiences in service of my artistry and to slow down, even if I need to shed a tear of my own while doing so.

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