My Problem with Death as a Storyteller

I send a lot of stories off to literary journals for publication. A number were published in 2020, some are lined up for spring publication this year. All told, though, my stories were rejected or “declined” over 100 times by fiction publications during the two year period of time I was submitting them. Still, I’ve had about a 10% success rate in the past year. It might have been higher, though, if I’d made death part of more of my stories. But as a writer I have a problem with death and dying (among other things dark and nasty) in the stories I concoct. Death can be too easy.

My early years of writing were constant examples of a lazy imagination, desperate for story ideas. If it wasn’t death it was fear of death or the loss of a lover or a ghostly sibling or the fear of losing a parent. The only way I could figure out how to end an early story (that I stayed up all night typing) was to have the autistic friend freeze to death under a heavy snowfall in the woods. (Ugh!)

I also managed to come up with stories about manipulative sexual encounters, violent confrontations in farm country, domestic rape, and the effect of suicidal thoughts. Maybe you need to go through those fiction games to get to the other side. But, in a world where more than a million new stories are presented daily to every set of eyeballs that lock onto screens everywhere, death as a main story hub is an all too obvious gimmick as far as I’m concerned.

The best writing I’ve encountered in the last ten years is a novel about a man down on his luck and a woman down on her luck finding each other serendipitously. It’s not just a beautifully written story, it’s a wonderful, near perfect love story. Until the woman dies about 200 pages in. I threw the book across our bedroom.

It’s very easy to tap into a reader’s fear and sense of desperation. Everyone knows the problem with being alive here in the 2020s. But what about the idea of knowing how to celebrate the act of living at a time like this? What about stories that grab a reader because of strange idea? What about all the ways people manage to thrive in the face of adversity? What about stories celebrating the small wonders and immense beauty always right there in front of our faces? What about the amazing mystery of love and the astounding triumph of truth and beauty no matter what in the end?

To me, as a writer here and now in 2021, the best stories need to ask questions and they need to leave the windows and doors of human possibility wide open. Death, even peripherally, is about windows that close and doors closing forever. Even though it is sometimes mysterious and interesting, as a story element by definition it tends to shut down questions about life and beauty and love.

I can hear someone arguing that perhaps storytellers need to posit the worst scenarios in order to acknowledge the need for a better reality. I can also hear numerous writers and editors saying that death is the cube of possibility that gives our lives the infinite potential and profound meaning. The problem that vampires have is not where they will get their next quart of blood but that they must live forever.

So I do my best to stay away from death and all its implications in my stories. There’s plenty of other ways people suffer — from divorce to professional failure to falling short on some physical goal to all the psychological demons people face daily. Fuck death. And, yes, I’m saying that as much to Dostoevsky and Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Poe and James Joyce himself as I am to myself and my fiction writing brothers and sisters. I’m saying it as well knowing how hard it is to stay away from that light sucking black hole. If you tell a person’s story through time you can’t escape their death. If you tell a story about old people, it’s always there. Death or the end of life as we know it … I get that. I’ve lost far too many people from this world just like everyone else over the age of forty.

(Maybe this is entire essay is just wishful thinking anyway. I’m old AF. I know it’s coming sooner rather than later. Maybe I’m just talking to myself here, trying to protect readers from a writer in the last phase of creative endeavor).

But our best writing needs to be about wonder and human connection and the secret to finding awe and inspiration in everything from the exploration of the natural world to small moments with children or pets, and the myriad solutions to fear and suffering that love provides anyone and everyone open and vulnerable enough to being in the present together. Death can be a sideshow.

The great writer, psychologist, and spiritual teacher, Baba Ram Dass, died in 2020. I read his most famous book (perhaps the memoir of all memoirs), Be Here Now, when I was sixteen. It changed me permanently.

In thinking about the fact that we eventually lose all human beings until it is our turn, I keep coming back to what Ram Dass said about life and death: “We’re all just walking each other home.” You can go all the way into infinity with those words and see the entire history of philosophy and every religion in them. And you can also see how beautiful and inspiring a simple moment with a friend or family member can be. That’s what the best writing can take on. That’s what the hardest stories to write attempt to get at. Why write about anything else? Why read anything else? It’s okay. It’s okay.

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