Death has been everywhere recently. I can’t seem to avoid it. I won’t normally be doing Tuesday posts, but I felt the need to write something today. To write something on the subject of death.
I write mostly thrillers, which means that death is part of the game. Sometimes, I feel like I throw lives away on a whim, but it’s all for the betterment of the story. I should clarify–this is fictional lives I’m talking about. Not the lives of real people, although they feel real to me. A friend of mine once asked me where the line was when it came to protecting those that he loved. Would he go to hell if he used violence to save and protect his loved ones? I was frozen, because as a writer, I was thinking, that sounds like an amazing story. But as a person? It sounded rash, complicated, like something that I would end up watching on The First 48 or 48 Hours Mysteries. I didn’t know what to tell him. I still don’t really know what to tell him.
The deaths of real people out there in the world still stop me in my tracks, even when I don’t know them. I become fairly immobile, if I do know them. Several days ago, I learned that a family friend had died. He was young–just 23 years old. The same age as my sister. I knew him when he was a toddler, and I was elementary school penpals with his sister, who is my age. I’m still feeling completely rocked to my core. What if that had been my sibling? What if everything I know came to a grinding halt?
As I am still trying to wrap my head around that incredibly untimely death, I learned that Brussels, Belgium was attacked by terrorists overnight. The number of people killed is in the range of two dozen, so far. I doubt that’s including the suicide bombers themselves. For the record, I am not a journalist–I hope you’re not relying on me for news, because I may have my facts wrong. But in reading, all I can think is–what a waste of life. Why is death ever the answer?
With death all around me, I feel like writing death into my work is almost cheap. It’s an easy way to invoke emotion in readers. But it’s also sometimes essential to stories. Sometimes death is the endgame. Sometimes death is what pushes the story forward. And sometimes death is the motivator. It’s almost too easy, maybe even a trope in some cases. But it’s necessary. I just feel bad writing it sometimes, when I can see actual death in daily life.
But then I think of Rent.
The musical, Rent, probably taught me more about death than I had ever known before. That probably sounds silly, but I was and am a sheltered person. I still have all four of my grandparents, and the only close family member whom I’ve lost was my aunt after a long and hard battle with breast cancer. All of my friends and most of my high school classmates are still around. I’ve been so lucky. Then, my freshman year of college, I was alone in my dormroom one night and borrowed my neighbor’s copy of Rent on DVD. I sobbed through parts of it, because I hadn’t really understood until then. Death is never pretty, but sometimes it’s ugly and messy as hell. Sometimes it’s at the hands of disease, but other times, it’s at the hands of addiction. Of mental illness. Of accidents and sudden, unexplainable things. It was Rent that caused me to actually start living by the phrase in the title of this post. I started telling people I loved them, even though it was scary. I quit pining for people and just told them I was interested. I’ve taken to screaming sense into people who think their own lives aren’t worth sticking around for, because everyone’s life is worth at least that much. And I started writing about death, because it was the only way to make it make sense.
In each and every novel I’ve written, there has been at least one death. Like I said, I mostly write thrillers, so that makes a little more sense. But I have to write about it. It’s something that invokes emotion in me when I’m writing, and all I ever want is to make people feel something with my words. Real death still baffles me and immobilizes me, and I have to write about it to make it make sense. I have to.
“The heart may freeze, or it can burn. The pain will ease, if I can learn there is no future, there is no past. I live this moment as my last. There’s only us. There’s only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road. No other way. No day but today.”
— Mimi, from the song Another Day, Rent