Writing is Learning How to Die
January 26, 2021 § 20 Comments
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.