“To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror; To learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.” ~Frank Herbert
I’m a cheerful man. Honest. Well, generally I am cheerful. I certainly don’t consider myself morbid. I wanted to say these things up front because some of you may not agree when you realize where this essay is going. Death is a part of life, right? And it’s surely been a part of my writing journey. I suspect it plays at least a small role in every artist’s journey as well, so I thought I’d explore a part of writing most of us rarely talk about.
“The story of my recent life.’ I like that phrase. It makes more sense than ‘the story of my life’, because we get so many lives between birth and death. A life to be a child. A life to come of age. A life to wander, to settle, to fall in love, to parent, to test our promise, to realize our mortality- and in some lucky cases, to do something after that realization.” ~ Mitch Albom
I came to writing a bit later in life than many of you. Storytelling is the story of my recent life. Just as the Albom quote implies, I came to it soon after gaining a more profound realization of my mortality. I always knew I would write, but through my twenties and thirties the concept was an abstract prospective, as in: Someday I’ll have the opportunity to write. As if the drive and ability would be magically bestowed upon me in some distant halcyon future.
Then death visited. How it came and the losses suffered are not of consequence here. At various points in our lives, we all face death—that of those we love, and eventually we face our own. Suffice to say, after this visitation my mantra became: life’s too short. I suddenly knew that if I was going to write, I had to start. It couldn’t be put off. I could not allow my not writing to become a regret. And so I wrote. And wrote. And I consider myself lucky for it. Looking at what I’ve written has taught me a lot about myself. In hindsight I can see that death’s visit was more than just an impetus to write.
The Comfort of Myth-Making:
“What does our great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home, the mythic womb?” ~Friedrich Nietzsche
It’s been said that Tolkien sought to recreate a mythos for England—for the Anglo-Saxons and Britons—that was lost to the Norman conquest. I’m sure, even if there’s an element of truth to it, that it’s much more complicated than that. I always found comfort in epic fantasy stories. There is something very satisfying about a well-constructed story world; the maps, the lineages, the religions, the entwining legends and prophesies. These elements create a foundation of order, no matter how chaotic the ensuing story becomes.
It’s always been interesting to me how many epic fantasy stories feature the remnants of a bygone era, the reflected glow of a glorious past. No matter how corrupt or decadent or unjust the circumstances become, there is a collective recognition that things had once been better—perhaps simpler or purer. And that it could be better once again. I suppose the same could be said for many stories set in a dystopian future. When the world seems tumultuous and unjust, and out of our control, we are comforted by a common mythology—by finding order in a shared story.
As challenging as it is, I found that creating this foundation of order for my story-world is even more comforting than reading someone else’s. Story can play a powerful role in grappling with an unknowable future, and our own uncertain fate. In this shared comfort, there is power. I believe in facing the worst through story, we gain strength. Even in the face of death. Perhaps particularly in the face of death.
Dealing Out Death on the Page:
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” ~JRR Tolkien (Gandalf to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring)
I confess: I’ve killed my share of characters. We writers can, and often should, deal out death. But I agree with Gandalf—we should not be too eager about it. Yes, I’m a character-killer, but I try not to take it lightly. I do not kill characters to shock, or to deconstruct the tropes of my genre. Nor do I do it in a mawkish attempt to evoke a stray tear. Just as in real life, in the world of my stories, death happens. But unlike real life, in the world of story, death does not hold free reign. Death must serve story.
I write characters who strive and often fail; characters who love and sometimes lose at love; characters who believe they are doomed, and behave accordingly; and, yes, characters who die. Their deaths are often difficult for me—even in the rereading. But here’s the bright side: in my stories, characters do not die in vain. Their efforts and their love are never wasted. Their deaths have significance and meaning, or I haven’t written them right.
Unlike in real life, on the page we can bend death to our will—to serve our purposes. Death on the page can help us to reckon with something beyond our control. For me, exploring death on the page is a way of coping, of making sense of it. Including death, and the constant threat of death, is but a story tool. It’s a single block in my stories’ foundation, but I consider it a vital one.
Art Versus Death:
“All passes. Art alone, enduring, stays to us; The bust outlasts the throne.” ~Austin Dobson
“What is art? Art is the thrilling spark that defeats death—that’s all.” ~Brett Whiteley
I am moved by beauty. Beautiful art, wrought by others, has moved me to feel joy and sorrow; to laugh, to grieve, and to heal. Through art I feel connection to the artists, and to humankind. That connection is powerful. And art endures. Therefore, art’s power endures.
I asserted earlier that we gain strength through our shared stories. I also believe that through being moved by story, we grow. Through emotions evoked on the page, our understanding of what it means to be human is deepened. And that is a beautiful thing. Few here would argue that a well-crafted story is art. A mortal artist can leave a lasting bit of himself—beauty wrought by him—as a mark upon the world he must inexorably depart. His art has defied his impermanence. Therefore, art defeats death.
“I live my life in growing orbits which move out over this wondrous world. I am circling around God, around ancient towers and I have been circling for a thousand years. And I still don’t know if I am an eagle or a storm or a great song.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke
I’ve occasionally thought to myself, only somewhat sarcastically, that I’d better hurry up and get my work right and out into the world before I die. And the thought of leaving my story as a writer incomplete is a disquieting one. Death has a way of putting the focus on what’s important. It gives me certainty as to my calling as a writer.
I’ve heard it said that becoming a published author is, in a sense, to become immortal. But that notion really isn’t part of my mindset in striving to be published. Although art is enduring, only a fraction of authors are read beyond their lifespan. But in the continuum, we the storytellers are combined, our contributions gathering to form that collective mythos. As we strive for beauty, we live our lives in Rilke’s growing orbits which move around this wondrous world.
If I believe we grow through the power of shared story, it doesn’t matter if my work becomes timeless. All that matters is that I learned and grew, and that I strove to share that growth and acquired insight. And if, by chance, I have moved another human or humans along the way, I will have achieved connection. And there is power in connection. I will have contributed to our collective mythos, and left my mark on the world. Whether it’s as an eagle or a storm or a great song, I will have staved off the oblivion of my impending demise, to continue to circle around God. So I’d best get back to work. Each day spent is one fewer before the inevitable.
How about you? Do you deal out death on the page? Does mortality play a role in your writing journey?