Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Death & Meaning

When I started writing a book about Death, I did not have any intent to make a "message" book. I have had friends and loved one die before, so it was not something I had not experienced. But the goal of the book was first to make an interesting fun compelling book that I and other people would like to read. I wanted to write an adventure story, pure and simple.

Adventures thrive on the mysterious and what could be more mysterious than death? The afterlife and underworld seemed like a pretty amazing place to set a young adult novel. And to get the action going, I have to start with a death, the death of a loved one, just to get us to that exotic locale.

That all felt "fine" to me until Sunday when the wife of one of my best friends from grad school sent me a message and asked me to call ASAP. I was nervous. I usually only talked to her husband, my friend, and not her. I guessed beforehand that this meant that the news was not good. It wasn't. My friend, in just his mid forties, died on Friday night of a sudden and massive heart attack.

It was devastating news. He and I had always been good friends and shared many interests. Recently we had found ourselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum so we had bickered endlessly about things that seem utterly meaningless now. What a waste of time that seemed now.

I was particularly touched by his wife's gesture. In the midst of her personal tragedy she reached out to his friends to comfort them. We had a long talk and I hoped I was as much a comfort to her as she was to me, but I don't think so.

Then I hung up the phone and thought. OMG. I've just written a book about death, and not just any book, a lighthearted comic/horror/fantasy adventure young adult novel, where I deliberately rip a mother from a child, just to get the action going on what is largely just a fun and comic yarn. I suddenly had doubts about the whole endeavor. Not whether it was good, but more specifically if it was even right or in good taste in the first place.

One does not wish to be trite about death. You can make it funny, humor is a perfectly reasonable response to absurdity, and let's face it, death can be pretty absurd at times. But though you can treat it with humor, it should never be treated tritely, without meaning.

I've since gone back and re-read the ending and large tracts of the middle as well. I wanted to make sure that though I treated the subject with humor, I did not treat it with contempt. I wanted to make sure that the forced and violent departures and sudden separations felt meaningful, and were not just played cheaply to pull on your heartstrings. I bring people BACK from the dead too, something an author can do just for a cheap plot device, but of course no real human gets that opportunity. I did not what to feel like I was deliberately manipulating or treating casually, the very serious subject of death. I suddenly wanted it to be more than just a good yarn. I wanted it to have meaning.

This is not the first time I had thought of this. Every writer has pretensions that his work will be not just entertaining, but important somehow. I had thought that maybe over the entire series I could craft a greater purpose than just pure fun story-telling, but now, NOW, with the death of my friend, it felt like an insult not to deal with it appropriately in THIS book. Pile on top of this, the rather self-conscious realization that my friend has died, and while his widow's (Widow! I still can't believe it!) first thought was to comfort others, my first thought was to selfishly consider what were the implications of my rather silly and inconsequential novel and you may understand why I was beginning to feel like the whole project was worthless and should be abandoned.

I was am very despondent about this.

My book is not as important as anyone's life. And to think I could create a book of meaning, not just fun, but meaning, on the subject of Death, suddenly seemed pretentious and arrogant. I'm not a prophet or a philosopher. I have no greater information on the topic of death than anyone else. I don't even think my ideas for fiction are particularly novel frankly, I have even less meaningful insights on Death. I just think I can tell a fun story.

Only it can't just be fun anymore. I've decided I can't just abandon the book. That would be defeatist, and frankly, I love the book, and I know that others will love it too. I want to see the same joy in their faces that I get when I read it aloud to my wife. And yet, it can't just be a fun story anymore. It has to be meaningful, without being maudlin or sentimental.  Even if I don't get to the "big reveal" by the end of this book, I at least have to show the reader I've thought about it, and that by the end of the series they can expect that I will say something at least somewhat meaningful and comforting, if not profound (and I have no hopes that I could ever be profound) on the subject of death.

So I am going to re-read and re-edit and re-think the whole thing. If this pushes back the release date a week, a month, or even more, then so be it. I'm not writing about unicorns or space aliens. I can't just fudge it. I chose the venue, and the subject is death. I have to do that some small justice some how, or I will feel like I'm just making money on people's pain. I will keep you posted of course and please send out your prayers to my departed friend Larry and his wife Lisa.

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