Writers and death
‘That I should rise and you should not.‘
I’m somewhat under-slept, as I had an ambulance call-out, and then spent much of the rest of the night with my littlest cat, who was in some distress. This did not end well, which leaves me less coherent than my usual incoherence. I’m tired and somewhat emotionally drained.
It’s been a rough period of partings for me. I had to deal with death first hand as a young conscript medic back before the dinosaurs went extinct, and the older you get the more often it seems to happen. I’m as soft as goose-grease, but it had to be dealt with, and as well as you possibly could – not only because the death of any man diminishes me, but because the living need you. That’s doubly true if you’re the one either deciding they have to die or doing your best to prevent that. They don’t need you less-than-competent because of emotion.
Like anything, you either deal with it or fail to, but if you deal with it there are various degrees of how well, and of what cost there is to yourself. I compartmentalize it, and can at the time usually cope. My Volunteer Ambulance work needs that now, just as my younger soldier-self needed it.
Funerals, where, honestly I don’t have to be the guy trying to keep someone alive are different. They’re a time to weep. And I wept for the early passing of a friend last week – the guy who told me the story that inspired CHANGELING’S ISLAND. Today brought one worse for me: the littlest cat had to take her last sad ride to the vet. She was approaching 19, kidneys failing, and she was in distress. We’ve been aware it was coming – but as soon as there was discomfort and distress we could do nothing to fix or even really ease – it was time. That was the single best thing we could do for an animal that loved and trusted us. It had to be done, loyalty calls for doing the best for them, no matter how it upsets you.
Still, Kipling was right. We give our hearts to dogs (and cats) to tear.
Death of course is very much part of much of what we write. Basic rule of thumb, if you’re not a person with emotive mental problems, and you find the writing of the close up of death not particularly disturbing – you’re not doing it realistically. You may – depending on what you’re writing and who your target audience is, be doing it ‘right’. Not everyone wants a book to leave the scars of their mother or best buddy’s death ripped open afresh. The murder victim in many of the classic whodunnits was often built into the sort of character the reader felt needed killing.
On the opposite extreme: some fantasy seems to involve bloody and gory death – even of comrades, that would have — if they were real– have most people fleeing in haste, throwing up or weeping in a fetal position. I sometimes wonder –reading these bits – whether vicarious death is the nearest either the writer or their audiences have ever come to it. It’s a market, but one I battle to write for. Too soft, I guess, but I am what I am.
But – like it or not, between these extremes writers do deal in emotional ‘manipulation’ (they might be puppet masters, or they might be as much manipulated by their own characters as I often am). Part of this is binding the reader to the character: and part of that is putting the character through the same emotional reactions as the reader (and writer) may well have experienced themselves. It’s not a particular joy to write (or if it is, dude, you need help) and it is the closest the writer comes to stripping themselves emotionally naked to the reader.
It’s also a balancing act: enough and you leave the reader identifying with the grief and sadness (or rage) of the character dealing with it. Too little and the character (and the dead) become mere cardboard redshirts. And too much (and may be just something about a scene or character that strikes a chord – maybe one the author never knew existed – with the reader) One of David Drake’s stories did that to me. Too much and a little too soon – maybe 20 years on.
I know I’m not great at it. I save my characters and their beloved companions entirely too often to ever be a ‘great’ author. But I know that’s a place that can make that difference between comfortable and great. Whether you can go there, or want to, is a question I can’t answer for you. But if you do: it’s not something you can make up, not something you can fake. That’s a piece of your naked emotion out there, and it’s going to hurt.
Give your loved ones – be they human or a dog or cat that extra bit of love today. I miss my friend Pete, and my little wussy-pussy, Robin, never happier than when cradled and purring in your ear. I cannot do that now. It’s a good idea while you have that time.