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Sunday
Jul152012

Let's Write About Death, Baby

A year ago I was leading an undergraduate workshop in creative writing and, as is unavoidable, one of the stories was about death. Actually, thinking harder about it, all of the stories were about death. Serial killers, cuckolded husbands, super-powered soldiers, alien marauders, people who’d had shitty days and just had to kill somebody over it.

On the day in question, the student in question who’d written the story in question had not actually created any murderous sociopaths, but had created a character whose supernatural duty was to step in at the last moments or hours of an individual’s life and die for them, so they didn’t have to experience the pain and fear of death.

Somewhere in the middle of my comments on the story (which wasn’t bad; the writer was one of my best students), I lost my mind and let forth a rant that I have never, despite my best efforts, been able to duplicate. But the main point was this: even when you (writers) aren’t writing about sudden death (which, really, you write about waaay too much), you still are. You’re still writing under the assumption that death comes fast and only hurts for a second (give or take a few days of torture at the hands of a sociopath). Popular entertainment’s culture of quick and brutal death has us perpetuating lies.

The truth is this: death doesn’t only hurt during the last moments or hours. Death isn’t only scary for those three seconds in between the gun coming out and your brain hitting the wall. Death isn’t exciting. Most of us won’t be shot or stabbed or walk in front of a bus or under a piano. Our deaths will take days and weeks and months, the terror and pain building more slowly and palpably than anything an hour of Dexter could hope to convey. Death is the worst kind of boring.

And, in treating it like it’s not, a lot of writing about death is also the worst kind of boring; the kind that refuses to engage in actual human experience and instead glamorizes and misrepresents something fundamental about our existence.

There was a stunned silence after my rant. I think I’d made a Neil Gaiman reference, something about “the high cost of living” and an impressed student finally broke the silence to give me kudos for my having read it (back when he was about two years old, actually). The moment passed and we went on with workshop. I left feeling more like a real teacher (of Big Stuff, not just writing) than ever before.

The following class, we read about a mercenary who killed immortals with a gun the size of a cello. It was actually pretty good.

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Reader Comments (1)

Ha ha, this hits too close to home. I wrote a short story in one of my creative writing workshop in college called "Wife and Death".

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTristan Chaika

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