Deathly Lessons for Writers

JordanMy Big Mouth

I’ve been reading books about death the past few days. One, a brilliant novel and the other a memoir about a mother’s loss of her child to illness. Both books hit a deep core in me that feels very important. And I’ve searched for a quote I can’t find from a well known author who said—perhaps grandiosely—that writing about death is the only meaningful writing there is. Now, I’m not saying I agree with that last statement, but in my recent pursuit of “surrender” as a strategy for getting through what is difficult as a writer (See: A Writer’s Guide to Surrender), I see the merit in thinking about death, to hold it close rather than push it away, and to find the ways that our writing is about our own and our characters’ relationship to death.

I’m not being morbid, I promise—but how many of you love those apocalyptic books and shows? How many Passage and World War Z lovers, Walking Dead and Falling Skies fans are among you? How many of you think it might be cool to live in a world where you had to survive based only on your wits, to outrun the terrible enemy and figure out, moment to moment, how to stay alive? In each of these shows or books, inevitably after the imminent danger has passed and they are tucked in the underground bunker with the hydroponic garden or the cozy-for-now attic with moldy blankets, there comes a character who says: “I miss it. I miss the action, the adrenaline, the way it felt on the road…”


There is, perhaps, a heightened sense of life the closer we are to death. And “being alive” doesn’t mean being happy, necessarily, but I think the human animal has a real penchant for feeling those messy feelings, searches for proof that just being alive is “enough.” My husband and I recently discussed how inmates on death row often achieve a peace and calm that those of us who haven’t murdered or thieved on such a scale may never get to experience because the question of dying has been removed for them. They are going to die, and soon—and this can force surrender.

So, what’s the point of all this talk of death? Who knows! But in my own grandiosity, I’ve reduced this contemplation to a few bullet points that other writers might find helpful.

  • Write like you are dying. Write as though you don’t care what people will think, or as if you are leaving a legacy.
  • Write like the apocalypse is upon you. Write as though there is no TIME for procrastination or self doubt. Now is all you have—get it down.
  • Consider: What is your character’s relationship to death? Fearful? Indifferent? Let that feeling rise up through their every interaction. Explore their fears around it (and thus, your own).
  • Find death’s contrast: joy. What brings both you and your characters exquisite joy, that deep from the toes welling up through the scalp kind of joy? Find it. Do more of it. Give it to your characters, too.
JordanDeathly Lessons for Writers