Jenny Diski, the British author who is writing about her life after a terminal cancer diagnosis for London Review of Books , once wrote a book titled What I Don’t Know About Animals . This essay could be called “What I Don’t Know About Death.”
I have been wondering how the prospect of death affects writers’ work as they get older. I wonder if the idea of time running out changes their writing, and if so, how.
These questions occurred to me when I was thinking about death in fiction and whether or not a person's death is the end of his or her story. More specifically, I was thinking about whether or not killing off the main character would be a good ending for a story I was and still am writing. In real life, death curtails a person’s story, in terms of the blow-by-blow, since a living person is always in the middle of something. On the other hand, life narratives, the logically progressing tales that appear as biographies and obituaries, often wrap up neatly enough before death—with retirement, completion of an important work, finding love, or, less happily, hitting some kind of bottom, A story is unlikely to end perfectly with death except maybe with an un-botched, un-messy, fictional suicide. Death does not necessarily equal conclusion, and conclusion does not necessarily require death.
To curtail my own ruminations: I was thinking that killing off my character, a writer, wasn’t the quick ending I was looking for. I wanted to finish the story another way, not just interrupt it. That led me to consider how in real life, death likely does interrupt something, and the likelihood of that happening goes up with the size of the undertaking. A novel is more likely to be interrupted by the death of its author than a short story or essay, for example. I started to wonder if older writers feared leaving works unfinished and reacted by writing shorter works, or if they redoubled their efforts in face of a literal deadline or… I imagined various ways that thoughts of death might affect a writer’s work. I wanted real answers to the question: How does a heightened sense of mortality (if applicable) affect the work of older writers or those with terminal illnesses (if it does)?
I set about e-mailing writers in their 70s or older (more often, PR reps) to request interviews . Though I feared that the writers I had in mind would be “too famous” or supply other excuse here to talk to me, I decided to try anyway.
So far, no writer has agreed to talk to me about my morbid subject, so instead of interviewing people, I’m relying for source material on the memoirs of writers with terminal illnesses who wrote or are writing about dying: Harold Brodkey (AIDS, 1930–1996), Christopher Hitchens (esophageal cancer, 1949–2011), and Jenny Diski (lung cancer, 1947–). All three memoirs were first published as a series of essays: Brodkey’s at The New Yorker; Hitchens’ at Vanity Fair; Diski’s at London Review of Books ( LRB). Brodkey’s and Hitchens’ works were later published as books, the form in which I read them. I wonder if Diski’s memoirs will also be bound and shelved after she dies.
At first, I imagined that this essay would focus on how thoughts of death affect the writing an author is already doing. I imagined death as an outside force acting on the work. But I didn’t realize the extent to which writers who know that they are dying go on to write about their own deaths or, more accurately, about their dying.
Do these memoirs illustrate how imminent death affects writers' work? Not necessarily. One could say that it led the writers to choose their own dying as a subject, but that seems a bit wrong because the writers could not have chosen that subject — at least not in nonfiction, or at least not in nonfiction that didn't view life as a long death sentence —without receiving such diagnoses. Nor could the writers have chosen to write memoir about their present lives post-diagnosis without either including or consciously excluding the terminal illness. It doesn't seem like much of a choice.
It's impossible to really know how any particular experience affects a writer's work because one can't know what the work would be without the experience.
What the memoirs can tell readers is how writers thought about death and dying and how they wrote about it. That's no small thing.
It is depressing to think that so many writers chronicle their deaths. It was easy for me to think of Harold Brodkey writing a book about his death from AIDS as THE person who dealt with imminent death by writing (when I read his book for a class). It didn’t take much Googling to learn that many writers have done, are doing, and will do the same thing: not only Brodkey, Hitchens, and Diski, but also Clive James, John Diamond, Iain M. Banks… I groan to think about all the words about death by cancer. Life interrupted is always sad.
But what made me truly wary of reading these death memoirs was the fear they might all be the same, that experiences monumental in the life of an individual writer might come off to me, the reader, as boring. I began to sympathize with the writer, who faced not only mortality but also a formidable literary task. How could the writer describing her death by cancer distinguish herself?
The first memoir I read was Diski’s series of essays in LRB , and I was thrilled to see that rather than writing something boring and cliché-filled, Diski begins by writing brilliantly about her fear of writing something boring and cliché-filled. "The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality," she writes to open the series’ first article, “ A Diagnosis .” She continues:
Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises.
Right from the start, after being told she is going to die of cancer, the writer snubs the clichéd thought. The past WILL NOT flash before her eyes, dammit.
My fear that all cancer memoirs will be alike began to dissipate. “I’m un-groaning,” I posted on Facebook that day, December 13, as I shared the link to “A Diagnosis.” Then I kept reading, intrigued by Diski’s story of being taken in as a teenager, whose parents were basically not able to care for her, by novelist Doris Lessing and the chilly relationship that developed between the two characters. The writing also captivated me; I kept reading to see what Diski, the writer, would do next. In that moment, whether or not Diski’s memoir was like other people’s no longer mattered to me, because hers was the one I was reading, and I liked it.
Hitchens and Diski both try to avoid saying what everyone says about cancer. Yet though these writers may have avoided certain phrases, they have not completely succeeded in being unique. Just as people who reject one fashion trend end up dressing alike so people who reject clichés end up fighting similar battles against the tropes.
Early in his memoir, Hitchens writes that in exchange for longer life, a cancer patient submits to chemo and radiation, diminishing his or her quality of life:
Unfortunately, it also involves confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language. You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: They are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality.
Diski, upon her cancer diagnosis, felt “embarrassment . . . at finding myself set firmly on that particular well-travelled road. I am and have always been embarrassed by all social rituals that require me to participate in a predetermined script.” But she knew that she could not escape the script:
I sense that I can’t avoid the cancer clichés simply by rejecting them. Rejection is conditioned by and reinforces the existence of the thing I want to avoid. I choose how to respond and behave, but a choice between doing this or that, being this or that, really isn’t freedom of action; it’s just picking one’s way through an already drawn flow chart.
Beneath fear of clichés are at least two questions: Is writing something that’s very similar to what someone else writes a bad thing, especially if you are writing about similar experiences? Then, if you want to write uniquely, how should you go about it?
One could argue that since death is a universal, there’s no shame in describing it the way other people do; in fact, it makes sense that a universal experience would yield universal descriptions. One could also argue that no two people have the exact same experience and that if they describe it the same way, it’s because they are not perceptive enough to see what makes it unique. There’s also a third possibility: that the way you think about an experience, which comes out in the way you write, affects the experience itself. If you think about life in an original way, perhaps you are more likely to have an original life to think about. Maybe experiences only seem universal to those who are not looking closely.
It’s nice to think that as a memoirist, you can think about these three possibilities, decide where you come down, and write accordingly, but it’s probably more a matter of working with whatever words come to mind. A writer can’t just decide to “see the world in a unique way.” Rather, you follow your nose and hope that it’s sensitive enough.
To die is to lose control over one’s identity. That identity exists in a writer’s past life and in his or her work. A writer’s identity is only her own to the extent that it’s unique. A writer will be known for whatever sets her apart, and a writer’s last works are the last opportunities to shape that identity. To produce clichés or unoriginal work is to forsake identity early, to die early, in a way. Two frightening mortality-related situations: being remembered as boring; being forgotten. Because life, writing, and identity are interconnected, the fear of clichés, of being set on an inevitable path, or of being forced through a “flow chart,” as Diski said, are all part of that fear of death.
Not far from the subject of eroding identity, dying from cancer seems a hard subject to write about not only because it’s an experience so many people have but also because it’s a story in which the main character is quite powerless. Unlike with so many binds that characters get into, with cancer, the protagonist cannot use wits or force of character or love to change his or her situation. The course of events depends on the cancer and on medical progress. The person becomes a landscape for the, yes, battle between science and nature, whereas in most stories, the actions of the protagonist determine, or at least influence, the course of events. A person’s actions can affect his or her cancer risk, but aside from refusing treatment, one can’t do much to change one’s own medical situation once cancer has developed. As Brodkey writes, “The trouble with death-at-your-doorstep is that it is happening to you. Also, that you are no longer the hero of your own story, no longer even the narrator. Barry [the oncologist] was the hero of my story and Ellen [Brodkey’s wife] the narrator.” You’re no longer the hero in that you can’t save yourself. A doctor or treatment might save your life, but you can’t.
This business of losing one’s hero status is also related to the fear of being and writing just like other people. We tend to think that much of what distinguishes one person’s experience from the next person’s are individual choices. When you have terminal cancer, your choices are greatly reduced, and they are likely the same choices that everyone else has. It’s hard to write uniquely about such an un-unique experience, an experience that nearly strips you of your individuality.
But not impossible. What about other life experiences where people are stripped of choice: Do they also put writers on the path to cliché? Think of walking across a desert or hiking a long trail, like the Pacific Crest Trail of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. Of course, Strayed chose to hike the PCT in the first place, but once on that very literal journey, she had to focus all her efforts on surviving a trip that many other people take and that plenty probably write about (Google “Pacific Crest Trail memoir” and you get a few relevant hits.). Strayed’s book was a big hit. It’s in the situations where the story’s plot is stripped down that the writer’s way of perceiving and expressing things stands out and has a proportionally greater influence on the work. You could argue that, theoretically, writing about a universal experience would be the best arena for testing your literary skills because the writing, as opposed to plot and action, would be your only way to distinguish yourself. Also, when the present is decision free, a writer is more likely to reflect on memories, as Strayed does, and those unique memories distinguish otherwise similar present moments.
Diski’s reflections on her past certainly distinguish her memoir. In it, she discusses not only cancer but also about the other people in her life and her relationships to them, notably, her relationship to Lessing. The clash between the expected “fairy story” (a term Diski brings up in her second essay, “ What to call her? ”) of the aspiring writer being taken in by a novelist and its reality, a complicated, tense, uncommunicative relationship that continued along those same tense lines until Lessing’s death in 2013, is fascinating to consider.
The way Diski writes it, her cancer diagnosis and Lessing’s invitation to come live with her are analogous: both befell her by chance, or unpredictably, and changed the course of her life. Both also involve living with an uncertain situation, one that feels as if it’s either one way or the opposite, and you don't know which. The uncertainty that Diski feels toward death—is one dying, or living, and what’s the difference?—parallels the uncertainty she felt when she moved in with Doris and was unsure whether she should make herself invisible or interact good-naturedly with her hostess. That decision was made harder by the discrepancy between Doris’s words and her manner:
I began to get the impression that the words she spoke and how she actually felt were at odds. It was hard to know which I should attend to. . . . It was as if Doris thought she only needed to say ‘relax’, ‘don’t feel grateful’, ‘feel at home’, and it was done. It wasn’t at all clear to me what feeling at home meant within the context of the house rules that kept Doris from being interrupted and given that it wasn’t actually my home.
What truly distinguishes Diski’s memoir is her writing style: what allows her to come up with a phrase like “The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality,” which simultaneously acknowledges and rejects a cliché; to connect her relationship with Lessing, simultaneously distant and pervasive, to the strange duality of dying; to do it all in a way that is so self-critical and sharp as to inspire in this reader/writer not just envy but also a vicarious pleasure, the pleasure of reading sentences and imagining how it might feel to have written them.
Perhaps the most glaringly difficult aspect of writing about your own death is that you don’t know when it’s going to happen. You can write about dying, but death, the climax, the eventuality driving your narrative, exists in the blank space beyond the last entry. You lack control not only as the hero stripped of power but also as the storyteller. How do you structure a narrative like that, whose climax, of uncertain timing, you will not be around to document? It’s hard to say where events are leading. Whatever foreshadowing of death exists in the narrative will only become apparent once the writer dies. Everything and nothing portend death. Then, after the fact, the writer is powerless to comment on the significance of the climactic event.
As a writer, a way to take control of the story and evade the problem of not knowing how much time you have is to avoid chronology. Diski, in her memoir of dying from cancer, also tells the history of her life. It would be a shame if Diski never got past, say, her childhood in her telling before the bell rang/tolled. But Diski avoids that pitfall by not telling her story chronologically.
Instead, she weaves the past and present together so that even though her memoir may not be complete until she dies, it is already complete, in a way. Each essay shows the reader her life, completely enough, both past and present, like a ladle of homogenous soup, as opposed to a multicourse meal. The essay “ What to call her? ” for example, spans around 50 years. It starts with the subject of death, fitting for someone who has just received a terminal diagnosis, proceeds to the 2013 death of Doris Lessing, then takes the reader back to the day in 1963 when Diski first went to live with Doris, and the circumstances that led to her “fostering” or whatever you call it (the essay is about the uncertainty of her relationship with Doris, including how to refer to it). The essay then shuttles forward to Lessing’s novel, Memoirs of A Survivor (1974), which, Diski explains, fictionalized their awkward relationship, including that first meeting, and ends with an image of Jenny and Doris, alone together that first night, “left alone to figure out how [they] were to get on with each other.” Diski writes that way because it's her inclination—she writes in “ In Gratitude ” that she doesn’t “like writing narratives, the getting on with the what happened next of a story that has a middle, and end, and a beginning”—not necessarily from a sense of mortality, but her approach could be rationalized as a strategy to avoid being cut off mid-story.
Scheherazade extended her story in order to stay alive. She had to avoid reaching the end, when she would be killed. But the writer of a memoir about dying has to both finish and extend the story at the same time, completing it, in case she dies, and continuing it when she continues to live.
I, too, am a mortal writer. Memoirists like Diski write about life as they die, or they write about death as they live. I seem to be writing about other people’s dying as I live or, in the very, very long view, as I, too, am dying.
On the plane ride to visit my parents for Christmas, I started reading Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality . My first entry notebook entry below, was written after I’d arrived home to Maceo, Kentucky, the town of farms, trailers, and train tracks where my parents live.
In Maceo again!
Jenny Diski has published another installment of her memoir. Once again, I am caught up with it, at the end of it. It’s ominous to be at the end of a death memoir.
I want to know more about Diski’s relationship with Doris Lessing. I want to know why “Doris,” as I think of her as a character, was so cold and solitary. Was it her natural way? Did she force herself not to get close to people because she didn’t want relationships to impinge on her writing? I fear that Diski has already expressed the essence of her relationship with Doris and that she doesn’t know much more about what Doris was thinking than I do. And Doris is dead, so Diski has no hope of getting to know her better. My wish to know more about the memoirist and her benefactor always dead-ends with the realization that death limits what a person can communicate and what you can know about him or her.
But life and a writer’s choices limit it, too. Diski’s columns often end abruptly and in a way that does not wrap things up. To give one example, in “In Gratitude,” she describes in great detail her walk from a bus stop to see Doris at her flat, not the one they shared in London when Diski was a teen, but one farther north, a walk during which she always felt a mounting rage. As she approaches Doris’s flat, Diski recalls the image, in her mind’s eye, of Doris answering the door that first time in 1963, a cat in her arm, to let Diski into her life. It’s an image that Diski returns to again and again in her writing, trying but failing to understand what Doris might have been thinking when she agreed to take in a teenager she had never met. It’s the moment that set them on the path to this later encounter, again on opposite sides of Doris’s door, “ two people, each hesitating and taking a deep breath, who really don’t want to see each other, but were designated by some higher force to stay in contact, to be a family, Doris’s obligation, one of her tribe.” And the piece ends. The door doesn’t open. The tension mounts, and that’s it. Nothing erupts. There is no big fight.
The cliffhanger ending seems in part a device to keep the reader interested. More to the point, though, it perfectly reflects the relationship between Lessing and Diski, in which both people are uncomfortable but nothing is ever done about it. The tension was always there, but aside from one disastrous confrontation soon after Diski moved in, in which Diski (as detailed in the essay “ Doris and Me ”) asked if Doris liked her (Doris stormed out of the house, then left a note accusing Diski of “emotionally blackmailing” her for asking), they didn’t acknowledge it. Perhaps it’s not that Diski is withholding the climax and resolution, the details of the big fight; maybe there was no resolution, just two people on opposite sides of the metaphorical door.
I didn’t write about it in my notebook, but on December 28 th, I decided to look at my baby pictures. The previous few days, I had been looking for a particular childhood Christmas photo to post on Facebook, which led to looking through all the old albums.
In the photo I imagine when I think of myself as a baby, my dad, wearing his corduroy jacket with leather buttons on the sleeves, is cradling me. I’m wearing a little pink velour suit. You can see my shunt tube sticking out of the right side of my head like a vein. I was born with hydrocephalus, or “water on the brain,” and the shunt is a device that works around that condition by draining the cerebrospinal fluid that the brain, for whatever reason, is not draining on its own. My dad is feeding me a bottle; I am looking up at him; he is looking down at me. We are pleasantly interested in each other. I used to think that’s what I looked like when I was born, or maybe a few days afterwards. I was tiny. My preemie baby doll, Carol, would later wear that onesie. Next, in my mental album, I was a toddler, clad in blue Keds, sweatpants and many layers of dress-up clothes, who dragged a sled, piled with full garbage bags, “treasures,” around the house. Then I went to nursery school, and the rest is history.
That baby picture exists, but it’s not what I looked like after I was born. I was probably three months old in that photo.
When I was first born, over a month early, I couldn’t suck. I couldn’t breathe well enough. I had no expressions. I had no clothes—okay, what I mean is that I wore none in the photos. I wore diapers and monitor circles attaching me to wires. Mostly I lay in the incubator, or whatever the clear-plastic baby beds are called, with a narrow tube protruding from the corner of my mouth. I was alive, for the moment. After I first appeared in the album, there was what seemed to be photo after photo of the same thing: me, lying sick in the hospital. Newborn Ashley in mother’s arms, mother in blue ICU wrapper, smiling gently. Ashley in incubator. Ashley with Dad in ICU wrapper. Ashley with bloody gauze on her forehead after shunt surgery. Ashley intubated. Ashley eyes open. Ashley mouth open. Ashley lying there. There’s a Raggedy Ann-type doll in the incubator that seems a mockery of my state, of how I can barely stay alive let alone appreciate a toy. The dated album pages show that time is passing, yet it looks as if nothing is changing. The pink snap-up suit seems very far into an uncertain future.
I stared at the photos and imagined the days and months when they represented my entire life. For a newborn baby, the present is a scary time, the edge of a very short cliff. I imagine an alternate future in which these photos are my parents’ only pictures of the child they lost. It could have turned out that way. That’s one reason, I imagine, that there are so many photos of me (doing what?) existing (but not without a lot of help) in those early days.
As I looked through the photos of myself as a baby on the border between life and death, I felt vulnerable in two ways: first as the baby just trying to live and second as the adult who realizes the limitations of her own perspective. I faced death and then forgot about it, in the way that we all forget our earliest years. I hate the feeling, probably universal, that the adults who surrounded me while I was growing up knew things about me that I didn’t know, that they knew my secrets before I did.
Though I don’t remember fearing my own death, I know there were times when my parents did. My early childhood was an uncertain time, and I had multiple shunt surgeries in elementary school. What followed a fifth-grade surgery was a long period of good health, a peaceful epoch, that lasted through high school and college. When I was 26, however, I had two shunt revisions in less than a year. It was as if the villain had returned. These surgeries, the first I’d experienced as an adult, reminded me that the shunt would always be there, both enabling my life and also threatening it in the same dualistic way that hearts both keep us alive and can, if they stop beating, kill us.
I initially wanted to avoid bringing my own story into this. I wanted to interview others who were both closer to death and also more experienced as writers than I am. But alas, here I am, with two books, an online column (Diski’s), and myself. Of these sources, I am the only one who will talk to me about death. And despite my youth, I think I know just about as much as anyone about how thoughts of mortality affect one’s work—mine, anyway—both because of my medical history and because of the unknowability of death itself.
I continued to read the memoirs, looking for signs or overt mentions of the ways that impending death seemed to affect the writing.
12/30/15 Christopher Hitchens’ book ends with notes he left, which the editors appended to the text. They seem to be notes not just for columns he never wrote but for the work as a whole, as some of them had already appeared in essays. The notes illustrate a writer’s life curtailed. In one of them, he writes about the British journalist John Diamond, who also wrote about his dying from cancer, and mentions the problem of writing an ending, or of not being able to write an ending, for your own story. “But after a year and more…well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, miracle cure! Hey, I was just having you on! No, neither of those could work as endings. Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though—how can I put this?—a stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end…” Ironic that this comment about loose ends would appear among Hitchens’ own notes.
01/01/16 Diski’s memoirs showed the way that how her illness influenced her writing routine. In an essay about undergoing chemotherapy, “Schrödinger’s Tumour,” she describes the way she wakes up to decisions about how to spend her energy and the resulting trade-offs:
A regular day now might unfold with me doing some work in bed and then getting up. Showering or bathing and dressing, and then, all clean and ready for the day, the body and mind refold themselves, suddenly faced with the urgent decision whether to eat something or to get back into bed straight away, not stopping for food, to sleep for four more hours or so. With or without breakfast, the effort of getting up finishes the day off for me. I’ve tried it the other way round, getting up first, before work, but then that’s as far as I get, so no breakfast and no work, just peeling off the clothes I’ve just put on and creeping back to bed, with nothing done, but mightily relieved to have been let off the exhausting business of making a decision.
Brodkey and Hitchens make fewer references to writing in their dying memoirs. Brodkey writes of working on his 1994 novel, Profane Friendship when he has the energy. He also mentions that he had begun a novel about dying, as narrated by a young man, when his AIDS was diagnosed. Yet he does not often make reference to working on his cancer diary.
Judging by the dates preceding sections of the book, Brodkey wrote a lot of This Wild Darkness in 1993, some in 1994, and almost nothing in 1995. He died in January, 1996. The front-loaded diary reminds me of my diaries from childhood vacations. I always wrote a lot on the plane because that’s when there was little else to do, whereas I wrote little about the vacation itself, when I was too busy vacationing. It seems to me that Brodkey wrote a lot in the lead-up to his death, but of course, when he was very sick, he didn’t write, probably because he couldn’t. He was probably too busy dying and trying to live. This train of thought makes me think of a modern dance I saw recently, Flight , by choreographer Margot Parsons, which is ostensibly about an airplane ride but is also about life. All the action, in the dance, takes place on the flight. Once you arrive at the terminal, it’s over. Metaphorically, all you can do is write on the plane.
Yet even if a writer dies pen in hand, he or she will not be able to write about what it is like to have died. It remains mysterious to the end. It’s like an asymptote, something you can approach forever but never reach.
I doubt that a mature writer who had achieved some success would consciously change his or her writing approach based on a personal change of circumstance. She would more likely make decisions based on the demands of the writing, or she would want to.
What I know is that these three memoirists, and many others, too, learned that they were dying and then wrote about it. Why? Trying to understand this is the closest I can get to understanding how death affects writers’ work.
It's pretty easy to understand why a writer, upon learning that he or she will die soon, keeps writing. If to write is to live, then to stop writing is to die early. “I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true,” Hitchens writes. “Almost like the loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.”
I think Brodkey wrote as a way of proving to himself, and to his wife, Ellen, that he was still alive, a way of pinching himself. Early in his memoir, Brodkey writes that “Part of what is basic in my life is how I show off for [Ellen].” Perhaps he also wrote in part as a way of showing off for her. Later in the book, he describes the way that she urges him to take it easy, and he refuses.
This writing is a strain, and Ellen notices and protests that I should stop. She says that nothing matters but my comfort; that we have time or that we have no time for this sort of business—each of those statements means the same thing, I notice. Sometimes I stop, but sometimes I insist on going on, the man in charge. I exist. I matter now.
Any last words? Terminal illness may have increased Diski’s sense of urgency to write about a subject she had previously avoided before, her relationship with Lessing, before it became too late. As Tim Adams wrote about Diski in The Guardian last year: “ Her illness, and the fact that Lessing was no longer around to object, made her want to tell her own story, despite Lessing’s best efforts to control it from beyond the grave.”
“She [Lessing] wanted to embargo all her private papers until me and my daughter Chloe were dead,” Diski told The Guardian . “I had never heard of anyone making sure they got the last word so effectively. So I thought I would get my own last word in before I pop off.”
But of all the ways to keep writing, why write about death?
Because it’s there? At first, it seems obvious: Because it’s a natural thing to do. Diski already wrote memoir. She knew she would either write about her cancer or not, and she chose writing. Though it’s possible to see writing a dying memoir as a response to the knowledge of impending death, you can also see it in more neutral way, as writing memoir based on what’s happened in your life. If that life happens to include a terminal illness, well, then you end up writing about dying, self-aware dying.
Because not to would feel dishonest? To decide against writing about one’s terminal illness could feel like hiding something. Brodkey felt that way, and it motivated his memoir. “I’d rather be open about AIDS and scoff at public humiliation than feel the real humiliation of lying,” he writes.
To maintain control? If I were a dying writer, the last thing I would want is for someone to claim that my dying had influenced my work because that would imply that I had lost control of the work, that my personal life had affected it, against my will. Writing about death deliberately would be a way of retaining control, of letting the death into the work and shaping it consciously rather than leaving it as a ghostly influence.
As the epigraph to This Wild Darkness, Brodkey writes:
I don’t see the point of privacy. Or rather, I don’t see the point of leaving testimony in the hands or mouths of others.
Better to write how you feel about death than to have others speculate.
To give dying a purpose? Hitchens, in the last chapter of his book, writes about the time he submitted himself to waterboarding, the torture technique of controlled drowning, for a story. “I became a torture victim because I wanted the readers of Vanity Fair to have an idea of what was involved in the sordid and obscure controversy about ‘waterboarding.’ And the only way left, or left untried, was to offer myself to this ‘procedure.’” Being in the hospital reminds him of that time. He writes that he associates the two, hospitalization and waterboarding, because ever since he was waterboarded, he has felt something like post-traumatic stress around anything that reminds him of drowning and suffocation. Tube feeding, bathing, and other hospital routines threaten to trigger that panic.
The analogy between the treatment of a patient with a terminal illness and torture is a apt in multiple ways. Though in one case, the torture is meant to prolong the life of a dying man and in the other to threaten a living one, death is the feared and expected outcome in both cases. Hitchens describes the psychological torture of knowing what’s coming—needle sticks, death, too, I suppose—and not being able to control it. The torturer, on the other hand, controls it precisely. “‘Have you met with our “pain management” team yet?’” he recalls being asked at one hospital. “Once you have heard it the wrong way, this can seem like an echo of the torturer’s practice, of showing the victim the instruments that will be used upon him, or describing the range of techniques, and letting these threats do most of the job.”
The comparison also raises the question of whether writing about death turns it into a kind of stunt journalism. In one case, Hitchens chose to undergo torture so that he could write about it and show Vanity Fair readers what it was like; in the other, he had no choice but to die from cancer, and he chose to write about it. Did writing about dying for Vanity Fair make Hitchens feel that his death had a purpose, too: to show readers what dying was like, all the while dispelling myths on that subject?
How does knowing I’m going to die eventually affect my writing? Thoughts of death motivate me to work harder and spur me on to finish, or to try to finish, whatever I’m writing.
In 2010, for example, I was in the midst of a personal writing project, a biography of my dad, when I had a shunt surgery and ended up recuperating at home with my parents for nearly a month. Toward the end of that time, I became quite determined to finish the summary of my dad’s scientific research that I wanted to include in the biography. That was in part because I wanted to access the hard copies of his papers, which were in his office at home, while I was still in Kentucky, but it also had something to do with a heightened sense of mortality. I ran out of energy a few times a day during that convalescent period, and I predicted that my gumption would only last so long. I was careful to work while I felt well because I knew that my time for working was limited, not by life but by my stamina, life on a small scale. More broadly, I probably wanted to make sure I finished the project before I had to have surgery again. I didn’t know that I would need another surgery, but I knew it was possible.
These limitations on what we can do—from naps to hospitalizations to a terminal diagnosis—all remind us that we are mortal, that we don’t have all the time in the world, and I think that we respond to these various scenarios in similar ways. Daily life teaches us about death as much as we can ever expect to learn. Older people or those with terminal illnesses don’t necessarily know more about death than younger or healthier people. We all know that we are going to die but none of us know and none of us will ever know what it is like to have died. It’s unknowable.
It’s about the time of the month when I expect to see a post from Jenny Diski at London Review of Books . I checked her Twitter feed . She has been in the hospital with pneumonia. Yesterday, she posted a few, typo-filled paragraphs on her personal blog about being hospitalized. Like Hitchens’ notes, the typos, more than anything, convey a sense of a person on the edge of life pecking away at a phone or iPad without the energy to make corrections. Vulnerable. Having conceded a battle against spelling in the interests of writing anything at all. She was sent home with some antibiotics that a caregiver could come by and administer. She was relieved to get out of the hospital. “I am not a cucumber,” she apparently told the nurses again and again.
Recently on Twitter, Jenny Diski posted that she has started a new novel. One week, she’s in the hospital with pneumonia; the next, she’s starting a new book. “That’s death,” or “that’s dying,” or “that’s life,” I guess. Of course it constantly changes as time passes. Diski’s more-cheerful Tweets defy an unspoken expectation that a dying person can do nothing but decline and that their activities can only peter out. The expectation is unreasonable. Dying, like living, has its ups and downs.
The last time I looked at this essay, I mentioned that I was expecting Diski’s next LRB column and instead I found a typo-filled blog post in which she described telling nurses and doctors: “I am not a cucumber.” The impression I had was of a writer who had to be satisfied with NOT being a vegetable and with not being dead.
Now she is back and doing exactly what I thought a dying person might not do: starting a novel.
My conclusions about “what dying is like” are bound to change day by day. Change is as inevitable as death. Writers will always keep thinking. The things that they are thinking about will keep changing. I suppose that feels like a problem because I am trying to understand what writers feel when they are dying, something that seems as if it should be final and absolute. In fact, though, it’s just as variable as people’s streams of consciousness. People without terminal diagnoses can know something about mortality, yes. On the other hand, people who are dying continue to live; they write and Tweet not only as dying writers but also as living humans.
Not everything that comes out of a dying person’s mouth, or pen, or keyboard, is necessarily influenced by or related to their approaching death. One can try to argue that since dying is part of living and since all thoughts relate to life in some way that they also relate to death, but that’s going a bit too far.
As the writer of an essay about dying, I am faced with the same problem as the memoirist chronicling his or her own demise: lack of a conclusion. The memoirist cannot write about her own death. I, observing the writing of someone dying but not dead, cannot really conclude “what dying was like” for that person until he or she has died. But even then, as I know from reading the dying memoirs of writers who are now dead, I will feel a limit to my knowledge, that universal asymptote.
If I learned that I were dying, my writing would not change very much. This essay is as much of a death memoir as I plan to write. If I learned that I had a somewhat finite time left to live, I would continue writing the story I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, the autobiographical novel whose main character may or may not die (within the book, that is). By “continue writing,” I mean finish.
I would still feel some uncertainty about how to end the book, though the dynamics would shift. If the real me actually were dying, then I wouldn't so much be killing myself off as allowing myself to live on in fiction. Of course, one beautiful thing about books, and about life, is that characters "live on" in the imagination whether or not they die.
My research on writers’ attitudes toward death has not changed the way I feel about killing off characters. I don’t want to cut off the story with death; I want it to end, or conclude, or not conclude, while the character is alive. Within the pages of the book, she lives. The question is, as always: how?