When I was writing fiction, all my novels involved threats of death. I was never entirely comfortable with those sections where my characters were avoiding death or where characters actually died. I chalked this discomfort up to unfamiliarity: my life so far had been relatively death-free. No matter, my writer’s imagination could take me anywhere I needed to go, including death.
Yet it never quite did. Although I did not understand it at the time, the very fact of death increasingly became an obstacle to the entire story I was trying to tell, even those parts that did not seem to involve death at all. My perception of death felt inauthentic to me. To fear death felt inauthentic the way all fear feels inauthentic, but to not fear death felt inauthentic as well because a part of me absolutely wanted to live and live and live and wouldn’t death end all that wonderful living? Isn’t that the math of life? Life = Life; Death = not Life.
And so this perception – or, this absence of perception – began to spread like a cancer through my stories. You cannot write what you cannot see, and since I could not see death, and since all things living must die, death’s darkness crept and crept across my view of life. Now all of the life I was writing began to feel as inauthentic as the death I was avoiding. I was writing shadows when I claimed to be writing sunlight.
I interviewed two memoirists recently, Cheryl Strayed and (the forthcoming) Megan O’Rourke, both of whose books were written in response to their mothers’ early death. In many ways, both these memoirs asked the same question. Strayed and O’Rourke had looked upon their mothers as a source of love, support, and guidance. Was that love, support, and guidance gone, or had it merely changed its form?
This is a question I cannot seem to answer once. As my view of what we call death has cleared, I find I must answer it more and more. I must answer it with every shocking headline I read, with every conversation I share, with every breath I draw. It is as if the mirage of death forever surrounds me, tempting me to move my attention from the life I was summoned to grow.
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