Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Writing About Death

It's hard to write about death. I didn't realize how hard it was until I tried to really do it myself. There was a professor at my college who did it well: Richard Messer. When I had him as a writing teacher, I was 19 and 20, and writing saucy, trouble-making things. He responded positively to something about my writing, which gave me confidence to keep doing it. Here is an excerpt from his book Murder in the Family.


I kept her old leather coat--but she had that brand new beautiful yellow one,
why was she wearing this, her father's castoff, shabby and too big? I put it
on and feel the hairs on my neck rise. Something has fallen out of the
sleeve and under the table, then under the bed, as if it were alive. Down on
my knees, I feel into the darkness under the box springs. The soft whorls of
lint dust. It is at this moment I know again that someone else is in the
room. At the table by the window in the other room. Someone who sits writing
down everything I do with a black pen on white paper. And if the leaden pen
stops its slow-motion scrawl, the wall of language will dissolve, and there
will be nothing between me and the writer, between the writer and the

Together we watch a name appear on the white surface: Bruno.

The one on his knees rears up as though struck. And so he has been
struck--by the thought of his children dying. Where are they? They have to go to
school, tell curious playmates what has happened. They don't want to stay home.

He explains this to himself and it is to Bruno he speaks, the one who sits
like a bear, the one who records, the one who listens. All week he has only
been going through the motions; he knows it now. People around
him try to act as though nothing has happened; so does he. But Bruno knows
better. From the moment he recoiled in the hospital morgue after seeing her
body, he has been split in two. The part of his life he lived through her
began to recede into the past, calling out to the rest of him like someone
buried alive. That it will always be this way is what he fears most. That he
will never feel wholly involved, wholly there in the world again. That,
diminished, preoccupied, he will drift on in the prison of an unreal
present-past, always reaching back inside himself, trying to save her.

At the time I knew him, I thought, wow, what a dark, kind of melancholy person, what a grey and haunted person. He was kind of scary and cool. Now that I'm older and I'm trying, myself, to write about death, I respect the writing he was doing. Death is really physical and low, and the awfulness is grinding and slow. The part right after the death is so breathless, how mundane, but your legs keep moving forward. I am not entirely sure what made me dig out this book and look at his work, but I'm glad I did.

Another one of his line that I have never forgotten is about how he wondered if he had spent his life trying to wake up, or trying to go to sleep. And in another, he says the dawn came through the window searching for survivors. Pretty amazing stuff, and it sticks with me after lo these long fifteen years.


  1. A great passage you've quoted and a lovely tribute. Sigh. We should all write so well.

  2. I remember a creative writing teacher telling me that killing your characters is not an option because it's "an easy way out" and your job as a writer is to get the characters worked out of their conflicts . . . alive. But I think death can do much to further plot if done correctly.


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