Writing is an Intergenerative Disease

by Anna Sheehan

Bow our authorial heads for Ray Bradbury.

There is a terrible fact about writing, one you won’t read about in medical journals. Did you know that everyone who has written a book has died, or will die? It is true, it is proven, and it is the kind of statistic that no one ever mentions. Intergenerative diseases like writing travel through entire cultures, pervading our thought processes and corrupting our children. And there is nothing we can do to stem the flow of death.

I was thinking about this recently when I heard about the death of Maurice Sendak. I remembered his books from when I was little. The illustrious children’s book author inspired and terrified generations of children, with Wild Things, vanished children, and babies made of ice. I loved ‘em. 

It has of course happened since time immemorial, these insidious deaths of authors. I remember I cried when I learned that my personal goddess, the fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, died in March of last year. Jones’ books were some of the few things that provided hope and escape through the peer-beaten, heart-searching childhood I endured. What would happen, now that she had been taken from this world? Who would fill the void she left behind?

This writing life that makes us authors has taken so many of us. Every once in a while I’ll hear of a new victim who has finally fallen prey. Many of these authors have been of great importance to me. In 2011 alone we lost Diana Wynne Jones, Anne McCaffrey and Brian Jacques. 2001 took Douglas Adams. Not to mention the tragic deaths of Dickens, Doyle, and Shakespeare. We’ve all known about it, but no one ever thinks it can happen to them. But let me tell you: if you have written something great – even something mediocre – even something terrible – or really anything at all – death will take you. Gaze in grief upon the fields of the fallen.

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for the insidious creeping death that will eventually come to all authors. Even ceasing to write is no remedy – death will find us no matter our precautions. And then what? There will be no more books of Chrestomanci or Redwall or Pern. There will never be a sixth book in the (no longer increasingly) inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s trilogy. Sherlock Holmes lives on, but Doyle’s works have finished, and there will never be another debut of a Shakespeare play.

 So what are we to do? 

Well, as I’ve said, writing is an intergenerative disease. It is contagious. And many of these great authors have passed it on – through the generations – to others. I suffer from writing myself. Many of you reading this may suffer from it, too. My sympathies. What are we, the victims of writing, to do now that these great authors have gone before us? These poor perished authors have succumbed, and their work is finished. But perhaps, if we all work hard, there might be something else. Something closely approximating the great works of these great authors.

We must fill the void ourselves. We must write more. It is the only solution. There will never be another Maurice Sendak, or Diana Wynne Jones, but who’s to say there won’t be fantastic books just as touching, terrifying, or twisted? We must face our disease with courage and strength, and force ourselves to become the next great authors. Someone has to don the mantle. Someone has to teach and terrify our children. Someone has to open the escape hatch for the drowning adolescent. Someone must open the window to the worlds of fantasy, and someone (Stephen Moffet, anyone? Laurie King?) has to maintain the legacy of Sherlock Holmes.

So that is our task, fellow writers. We suffer every day from this insidious illness that poisons our minds, saps our time, and causes our backs and hands to ache, chipping away at our days. And some day we, too, will succumb to the inevitable. 

So we must do what we do. Write. Open worlds, feed minds, further legacies. Saddled with a pervasive, intergenerative, incurable disease such as writing, it is our task to try and make life better for others. It is the only thing any of us can do.

To all who have gone before: We heard you. We read you. We thank you. 

We will become you.

Anna Sheehan is the author of A Long Long Sleep(Candlewick, 2011) You can find her at annasheehan.com

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