Writing is Learning How to Die

January 26, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Amy Grier

We writers love to talk about why we write: to make meaning out of a chaotic world; to confront personal trauma by creating narrative; to transcend our ordinary lives and find purpose through our art. I’ve often said that writing is what keeps me grounded. Without it, life overwhelms and confuses me. I write to live.

Then I reread Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. It had been so long since I’d read it that I’d forgotten what the first step is: The School of Death.

The others are The School of Dreams and The School of Roots, but let’s face it: when death is the first thing thrown at you, dreams and roots don’t seem so urgent.

I’d also forgotten how much this philosophy of writing means to me. I’m in love with The School of Death. Cixous writes, “Writing is learning to die. It’s learning not to be afraid, in other words to live at the extremity of life, which is what the dead, death, give us.”

Just to be clear, it’s not that I want to die. If I weren’t so desperate to live, I wouldn’t write. But I believe that to confront the certainty of death is to confront our deepest fear of the uncertain, of the great unknowable. While we may have beliefs about death, we can’t truly know what it is, what it feels like, what lies beyond, if anything, until we die.

Cixous views all artistic endeavor as a leap into the unknown. “Thinking is trying to think the unthinkable: thinking the thinkable is not worth the effort. Painting is trying to paint what you cannot paint and writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written.” This reflects what many teachers have told me: it’s the writing that shows you what it wants to be.

We don’t like uncertainty. We want to feel like we know what we’re doing. A dear writer friend of mine, struggling with her memoir, once said, “I just want someone to tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

I understand her frustration entirely. Grappling with the chaos and confusion of a memoir draft is daunting. If we just find the right workshop, the right craft book, the right book coach!

We can feel the book in our bones, but the writing of it can seem like we’re always at the beginning, always trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing.

At least, that’s how I often feel.

“The only book worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write.” While Cixous’ words may appear oxymoronic, she is in fact driving home her argument: we must take a great, brave leap into writing, even as we don’t know where it will lead.

We don’t have the courage when we start, but the starting will bring it.

We don’t have the strength, but the simple act of not giving up will strengthen us every time we sit at our desk.

We don’t need to know, to understand, to figure it all out. We just need to write, to get to that “burning point, that last hour, when we’ll be able to write or say everything we have never dared to say out of love and cowardice.”

And if you’re still with me here, you’ll see where this is leading, how I interpret Cixous’ statement that writing is learning how to die: it’s an act of deep faith in ourselves.

It’s trusting in our own ability to navigate uncertainty and to work toward the unknowable.

It’s letting go of the obsessions that make us feel safe—word counts, page numbers, craft styles, office décor, mentors, coaches, structures, critical voices, schedules, permission, expectation, disapproval, guilt, shame, pride, jealousy.

It is, finally, taking that great fiery leap into the final hour where we tell the truth and damn the consequences.

When I work with this mindset—that I’m learning to die—then I’m truly feeling alive. Liberated. I can breathe and write. My anxiety fades. My investment in the final result crumbles. I’m present with the writing, which I’m only now understanding requires so much courage. And in this way, I am still writing to live.


Amy Grier earned her MFA at Lesley University. A singer and classically trained pianist, she has taught music and English in the U.S. and Japan. Amy has a master’s in East Asian Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and one in Literature and Writing from Rivier University. Her prose and poetry has appeared in Poetry East, eratio, Streetlight Magazine, xoJane, and Dream International Quarterly. Her memoir-in-progress, Terrible Daughter, is about surviving childhood with a mentally ill mother.

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§ 20 Responses to Writing is Learning How to Die

  • Many thanks! I needed a reminder this morning, and there’s nothing like death to remind you of life. And for a lot of us, writing is life.

  • My thanks, too. I opened an old, unfinished draft yesterday and began rewriting. I do not know where it is going, and it’s old enough that I can not be certain it is going anywhere at all. I will work my way toward death.

    • Amy says:

      That’s brave, to write with no investment in a goal. It’s also a return to our childhood artistic selves, I think, when writing and drawing and painting and all those endeavors were done for fun and joy, not for ego.

  • Kelbungy says:

    “A dear writer friend of mine, struggling with her memoir, once said, “I just want someone to tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

    That’s exactly my predicament and plea! And the words you wrote after the above? You understand. And you literally ripped the words right out of my mouth! Words that beg for companionship and empathy.

    Thank you thank you thank you. I’m again assured that I’m not alone in this oh-so-lonely 2nd draft phase my memoir’s stuck in!

    This means so much!!

  • I’ve recognized that one of my biggest obstacles as a writer is my desire to control the text. I no sooner write the first sentences – sometimes even before that, when I’ve simply conceived an idea – that I start imposing a structure on it, and the structure invariably kills it. But recognizing is one thing and changing is something else entirely. I haven’t known how to unseat this tendency.

    Here, you’ve given me a doorway. Thank you!

  • henhouselady says:

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Megan Adam says:

    I write in an attempt to understand the world, but in between the attempts to understand and the final draft things can get really messy. Letting go of control – as you say, the obsessions – are necessary for me to create work that can be re-ordered and shaped. Without that liberation, we have nothing to work from. Thank-you for this piece of writing!

  • kperrymn says:

    I love this. Just last night, I hit send on the completed first draft of my memoir–I was sending it to the writing instructor for a year-long book writing project. My note to her was that it was great to be completing the course, but I felt as if in finishing this draft I am only now at the beginning! And that I should have signed up for the course again!!
    Thanks for this beautiful and scary piece!

  • Absolutely understand these words and experience this, also– and well done.

  • Wonderful guidance, thank you.

  • kjboldon says:

    Thank you for this, today. I need to read the Cixous. Yours is the second appearance of it this week on my radar.

  • This spoke to me. I have always been a writer, and just recently started a blog. This made me feel like I am on the right road. Thank you.

  • Truly inspiring. I’m heading for my writing desk now!

  • You perfectly articulated my thoughts. “Just to be clear, it’s not that I want to die. If I weren’t so desperate to live, I wouldn’t write.” Exactly! To write is to live and to die. They are counterparts.

  • Ramona Gault says:

    Many thanks, Amy! This rings true for me right now. And I look forward to your memoir. My mentally ill mother died recently, so I have a feeling what you write will speak to me. Good luck!

  • m. handler says:

    Thank you for sharing your piece, I feel “reborn” as a result!!

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