How to Survive Writing About Death
April 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Dinty W. Moore
I’ve been a fan of Sue William Silverman’s work for more than twenty years, and was looking happily forward to her latest collection How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, never expecting the book release would coincide with this frightening pandemic. But it did, and aside from the peculiar irony of the book’s title, Sue (like many authors right now) faces cancelled readings and book signings, and the general frustration of trying to let readers know about her latest book in a time when we have so much else on our minds.
So, I asked her some questions. It was easy to do that while still socially-distancing, and aside from being a greatly-talented writer, Sue is a powerful teacher and master of the craft.
So, here we are:
DINTY: Your book How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences was released just as the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic stopped us in our tracks. It is frustrating for all authors publishing this season, I’m sure, to have book tours cancelled and book stores closing, but the irony with your book is that it speaks directly to our current fears, of death, of illness, of trauma, of what the final moment might feel like. How odd has it been, trying to talk about a book such as yours at a time such as this?
SUE: It’s oddly ironic, indeed. Many people have commented on the book in the context of our current pandemic. Of course I started writing it over six years ago, so had no factual knowledge this maelstrom was heading our way.
At the same time, given that I’m a hypochondriac terrified of death, the book underscores how I’ve always been on the lookout for Death—pandemic and otherwise. The book is structured, in part, around a metaphorical road trip, as the narrator tries to outrun and outdistance death.
So I’m also not the least surprised by the coronavirus; on some level I’ve been expecting it. I’ve been flying with a face mask, literally, for over 15 years! And in the book I list all the unguents and potions I use to survive death: for example, Thieves Oil. A different formula was developed during the Plague, but I use the modern version to stave off all sorts of new plagues and viruses.
In short, yes, my instructions on how to survive death are ironically relevant.
Pandemic aside, the book is relevant for anyone who generally fears death. However, thematically, it’s also about how to survive life—how to live an emotionally authentic life that will be transcendent.
DINTY: But your book, though focused on “death and other inconveniences,” is full of humor too, gallows humor on some pages, flat out funny moments on others. What are your thoughts on our need for humor right now, as the world faces this frightening and previously inconceivable challenge?
SUE: I’m pleased you see the humor in the book, which I was trying to convey by the title. Humor, gallows and otherwise, revels in the absurdities of life.
When you’re in the middle of a tragedy, the humor isn’t always obvious, of course. The power of creative nonfiction is that we implement a reflective voice to look back and better understand the past, which can involve seeing humor in a situation that didn’t seem funny when we were living it.
One of the essays in the book, “Flirting with the Butcher,” is about my first 12-step meeting of Sex Addicts Anonymous. This was during the time Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested, and his whole nightmare was in the news. In my then-current state of emotional disarray—I was also struggling with an eating disorder—and I became obsessed with Dahmer. I mean, my anorexia seemed “small potatoes” when I considered there were people with the ultimate eating disorder—cannibalism—out roaming the streets!
Perhaps the most absurd thing about this is that it didn’t seem absurd to me at the time.
DINTY: And of course, the ordeal we are living through now, COVID-19, includes undeniable tragedy – death to some, sickness to others, separation from loved ones for almost all of us. But even this moment will, as hard as it may be to fathom right now, eventually be fodder for humor, maybe even absurd humor. The Greek masks, comedy and tragedy: one comes off, the other comes on. You’ve made a career of writing with wit, grace, and honesty about difficult issues – abuse, incest, addiction, death. Do you have advice for other writers who want to strike that sort of balance in their own writing, the tipping point between too bleak and too lighthearted?
SUE: I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to strike that balance. Mainly, it’s important to write in a way that’s emotionally authentic for any given narrative. For example, my first two books, one about incest, the other sex addiction, are darker than the two more recent books, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew and now How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, even though they address a few of the same issues. The newer books are more ironic mainly because that’s how I now see those moments in my past. As my feelings toward my experiences change, so does my writing.
In order to discover your own particular viewpoint, it’s crucial to start from a small, specific detail and write outward from that. In other words, for me to write about the COVID-19 pandemic, I might begin my narrative, say, at the moment I told my partner I couldn’t kiss him goodnight because he’d been to the grocery store that day. Maybe a molecule of virus, lurking in the produce aisle, had adhered to him! I begin with the smallest personal detail in order to discover the universal. The universe, like the devil, is in the details.
Don’t get wedded to one voice. Don’t impose how you think an essay or memoir should sound. Listen to how the piece at hand wants to sound. Experiment. As an exercise, try writing a scene two different ways: one perhaps very serious, even melodramatic, the other, say, ironic, humorous, even absurd. Which voice helps you uncover some truth? Which makes you go, “Ah, ha!”
DINTY: When most people think about death and what lies beyond, they imagine either a sort of nothingness, or else some personal image of paradise. Both seem nebulous, which isn’t much help for a writer. How did you address that challenge? What strategies did you use to bring order to ill-defined territory?
SUE: The book is structured in three sections, each titled with the name of one of the Three Fates. There are also six brief sections written as if through the voice of these Fates. This structure is a reminder that death is ever-present, and we have to be creative, lucky, and tenacious in our ability to outwit it. So there’s both a memento mori (“remember you must die”), and a memento vivere (“remember you must live”).
As a writer, I focus on the creative option to live. My aforementioned road trip to survive death is also a vehicle to journey through my life collecting memories, as it were. I “drive” through all areas of my life, from youth to the present, not just amassing memories, but reflecting upon them, making metaphorical sense of them, making sense of my life.
In short, if all else fails—if I’m sadly not able to survive physical death—then I’ve preserved my memories to outlast me. They are now collected in my books after all. The art we leave behind transcends death. There are many reasons to write and create art. For me, cheating death is one of the most central.
Dinty W. Moore is editor-in-chief of Brevity magazine and the Brevity blog.
Sue William Silverman is author of How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, the memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick, and a memoir craft book, Fearless Confessions.