Death – or, a manner of grieving and discussing writing

                Anybody who has read Stephen King’s The Stand will remember Nick Andros – the same Nick Andros who played the silent George to Tom Cullen’s Lennie.  Everyone will remember the bomb, which sets off Stephen King’s equivalent of an avalanche as the pieces all roll down to Las Vegas and the inevitable denouement.  From a reader and a fan standpoint, that scene was the most emotional for me – more emotional than Frannie Goldsmith burying her father, and certainly more emotional than Harold being left on the side of the road.  Nick was one of the good guys; moreover, we’d spent a lot of time with Nick, getting into his head, understanding the almost saccharine purity that made this deaf-mute wanderer so endearing.  When I read King’s On Writing, back when college was looming and high school was already mostly in my rear view mirror, I remember being shocked, and even a little disappointed, when I read that Nick Andros’s death was partially King’s way of thinning the herd, and partially his way of jumpstarting the plot of his 500,000 word milestone.  For me, as a reader, there was so much more to Nick’s death, both in terms of emotion and in terms of meaning (semiotic or otherwise).  As a writer, I understand that sometimes good people pass on, and sometimes bad people do, too.  Of course, my own novels have their share of death, and some of those who die aren’t necessarily good, and aren’t necessarily bad; sometimes, they’re just there.

                The real world in my life has had its recent run of death.  On December 8, it was my grandmother’s brother, Ed; his flight from good health to bad was impossibly rapid.  On January 5, it was a man who would have been my grandfather’s brother, for all anyone knew; Uncle Phil’s health had deteriorated, but he was still able to regale us with the way things were, even while on oxygen.  Both of my mom’s uncles will be cheering along their Niners from Heaven, along with my departed Uncle Dan (d. August 25, 2002).  Things struck quite a bit closer to home (literally, next door), when my wife’s grandmother, Doreen, passed away after a long battle with cancer.  It was a Tuesday, at 2:10pm, and it was something that we had all seen coming, but not something for which we could adequately prepare.

                When I was introduced to Doreen, it was much like how you would be introduced to a character in a book.  No, her habits and demeanor weren’t quickly encapsulated in a paragraph or less, and no, she wasn’t approaching a crowd of puritans with her baby bundled against her chest, but she was just like you would meet any other person; you get a glimpse, and then a little information, and then a little more.  At first, you’re not sure who that person/character is, or if she’s going to run off with the army as it passes through her mother’s farm.  Like anyone, you get to learn about the content of someone’s character based on (among other things) what they do, the stories told about them, and who they are.

                One of the lasting earlier memories I have of Doreen is her being thankful that a bunch of young people were out enjoying themselves at a party held next door.  I thought that it was kind of funny, as I don’t think that my own grandparents wouldn’t have cared much for a dozen or so strangers hanging out next door, drinking and laughing late into the night.  As I grew to know her, I remember her always being willing to make split pea soup and/or any manner of decadent delights that wound their way onto our back step or our dining room table, and I realized that, aside from being so giving, Doreen just wanted to see people enjoying themselves.

                A little over two and a half years ago, I also learned that Doreen could really cut a rug, and I imagine that she was really known to do that in the 1950s in Kamloops or Merritt or wherever she was at the time.  More than anything – and I promise, that this is the last of the eulogizing for now – I remember all of the stories about Doreen: traveling across Canada on her own, her future husband pushing her around in a stroller, her experience as a docent at Wilder Ranch and a den mother for a local Girl Scout Troop, and traveling through nasty portions of exotic ports of call to get to good restaurants, to name a few.  While there’s a lot to be said about Doreen, it had me thinking about death in books and television and movies, and how there are two types of character that tend to die in each.  The first, like Nick Andros, Lennie Small, Myrtle Wilson, etc., is the meaningful death — someone whose death either tugs at the heartstrings or represents some symbolic viewpoint.

                Eventually, we move on.  Fans of The Stand would have missed a large swath of the book if the book if they turned away when Nick Andros died, and just about every epic, episodic work, or television show deals with death (sometimes, as in the case of the great Stanley Kamel, because the actor playing the character also passed away).  Not all on-screen or on-paper deaths are convenient enough to serve as the unraveling, or even as an inciting event.  Moving on isn’t easy; nobody said it was.  Consider the impact that a death has on your characters.  Odds are, poor ol’ Johnny still had friends and family.  Don’t pull the Eleanor Rigby ending on all of your characters!

                When I first started this post, now more than two months ago, I had no idea that death would visit my life again so soon.  On March 5, just over a month ago, my grandmother passed away.  A week later, I was up in a tiny suburb of the state’s capitol giving a mini eulogy for her.  I had to keep it short, for a variety of reasons, but no reason was greater than going up and trying to sum up a person’s life is hard.  Think about it.  A person lives for nearly 88 years, and is married for sixty-eight and a half of them. Is there any way that you can sum up all 68.5 years of marriage?  Is there any way that you can sum up 88 years of life?  If you can do that, in detail, and not pass out from dehydration or sheer exhaustion, then you just might be able to recite the Bible from cover to cover without stopping.  Needless to say, I felt guilty that I couldn’t get more in depth, and that I couldn’t speak with greater authority on a woman that mattered so much to all of us.  On top of trying to keep it succinct, it’s tough to dust off the old shoebox of memories and remember her for who she was; she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.  Unlike many sufferers, Grandma’s cognitive function went quickly, and then she remained in good health (although she was largely nonverbal) for nearly a decade.  It was a tribute to how well my grandfather took care of her, but also meant that the last time I really saw Grandma’s true personality was in the early 2000s.  She was already slipping in Summer of ’02… and this has turned into a ramble.

                The point of this last section, aside from just getting thoughts onto virtual paper, is that you can’t sell a character or a person short, but you also must be succinct, and must remember that this character had at least some impact on everyone in your imagined world.  Does it matter that, prior to going to England for a few years, your character or loved one lived in Savannah?  Probably not.  However, if your character lived in Savannah and gained all the skill he needed to become a successful jewel thief, then maybe Savannah bears some mention.

                This blog was intended to be a discussion of writing and of craft, but this last post has become a bit of memoir.  I’ll just tally up the score right here, and…

Advice:

1)      If your character dies, make sure it resonates with your reader as well as with your other characters

2)      Keep it succinct, but don’t sell the character or her impact short.

3)      Just because a death is not an inciting event or part of the grand unraveling does not mean that it doesn’t impact your characters.

In Memoriam:

D.P.D. – (1958-2002) Lung Cancer
P.S.J. (1929-2013) Lung Disease
D.S.B. (1927-2013) – Cancer
E.N.B. (1927-2012) – Cancer
S.E.O. (1925-2013) – Complications due to Alzheimer’s

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One Response to “Death – or, a manner of grieving and discussing writing”

  1. Eamon B Says:

    Sometimes I think that the silver lining of death is that in the inevitable reflection on that person’s life, we are able to absorb so many lessons. May we all be so lucky to have a spirit like Doreen’s.

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