Everybody’s Writing About Death and Dying

Let’s talk about death and dying. Fun, eh?

We are writers. We process life by writing about it. My husband died four years ago yesterday. Throughout his illness, I wrote in my journal about everything that happened. It was a coping mechanism that allowed me to transfer painful experiences from my brain to my computer and move on. But, to be honest, the writer in me was also thinking, “This is a good story that I could do something with.” Crass? You bet. But it’s true.

I’m not the only one. In my reading, which includes books, magazines, webzines, literary journals, submissions for The Timberline Review and more, I find an overwhelming number of stories about death and dying lately. The authors write about the mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, best friend who suffers a long illness or a sudden tragedy and is gone. I get it. What’s the most dramatic thing that happens in our lives? What else can we write about when death is all we can think of?

A New York Times article titled “Why We Write About Grief” looks at the “literature of loss” through interviews with Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote about the death of her husband in A Widow’s Story and Meghan O’Rourke who wrote about her mother’s illness and death in The Long Goodbye. Other recent books in this genre include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death, Anne Roiphe’s Epilogue and Roland Barthes’ posthumous Mourning Diary.

I’m currently transforming my journal notes into a memoir, and of course I expect it to be a best-seller among the many other books about living and dying with Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe it will. Or maybe readers will sigh and say, not another one. My challenge is to make this death and dying story different from all the others and give the readers something besides sadness.

As a reader, I’m starting to get tired of death and illness. I’m happy to find a book that is about something else. As an editor, I’m getting weary of bedside farewell poems. One of my favorite poems that we just accepted for Timberline is written from the viewpoint of Mozart’s sister and tells what a spoiled brat he was. Another talks about working in the forest cutting down trees. Another offers portraits of people seen on the streets of Portland, Oregon. There’s a dying poem, too, but only one because we can’t publish too many poems on the same subject.

Other popular topics these days are almost as grim as death and disease. Countless writers are publishing books and essays about sexual abuse. Others write about eating disorders, addictions, or coming out as gay. It makes me feel sometimes as if I can’t get published unless something horrific happened to me. I was raised by two loving parents who were not alcoholics, who did not beat me, who fed me well, took me to church and taught me my prayers. I’m straight, healthy, and relatively sane. What am I going to do with that?

Well, what about imagination and reaching out beyond our own experiences? What about putting a new twist on the old stories? What about writing something happy instead of tragic?

Death and dying are part of life. Go ahead and write about it. It’s healthy to express what you’re experiencing and feeling. But when you decide to publish what you write, think about these things: Has enough time passed that I can see my story objectively? How can I make my story different? How do I make sure it isn’t totally depressing? What will the reader get out of this? Read some of the memoirs mentioned above to see how they do it.

I just finished reading a memoir titled Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict. Author Kelly Kittel went through horrible experiences. Without spoiling the plot, let me just say, she was pregnant 13 times and now has five living children. It’s a dramatic story that kept me reading all last weekend. I had to know what was going to happen next. And the story ended with a positive feeling. How? Read the book. If you can do it that well, you can write about death.

Let’s go write.