Writer’s Log, November 5th: Pretend Everyone You Love Is Dead

The longer you hang around writers, the weirder the conversation gets. Usually, this is a good thing, as long as alcohol isn’t involved. If alcohol is involved, gird your loins and take notes.

But when the conversation is good, it is, at the very least, though provoking. Years ago, after an agonizing, two-hour workshop discussion on how to handle the fact that our own truths, in print, might not sit particularly well with those we hold dear, our beloved instructor cut us off. “Just pretend everyone you know is dead,” he said. “Nothing is more important than the writing.”

I get why this might seem, at first pass, terrific advice. First off, it’s hard to forget. Second, it speaks boldly to a universal difficulty so many writers have. Many of us get our best material from our worst experiences, and some of us even become writers because we were silenced or denied our truths from an early age, and we find it ever-so-slightly therapeutic to put them in print and distribute them as widely as possible, preferably nationwide. Still, no one wants to actually throw Uncle Henry under the bus (no matter how much he might deserve it), not least because Thanksgiving is coming up and we’d rather eat pie in peace than navigate his seething fury for an afternoon.

But that’s not the only reason why I’m not a huge fan of this advice. In general, I’m not a fan of writing advice that smacks of desperation, ultimatums, or wishful thinking. I used to find such extremes liberating, but, like most extremes, their charms are limited and short-lived. Pretending everyone you love is dead might startle you into more ballsy material, but it takes a helluva lot more work to figure out ways to write about our truths without resorting to the kamikaze method of airing your dirty laundry.

This is because fiction wants to be created, not appropriated. It doesn’t want to be shocked alive; it wants to be nurtured on a solid base, one that represents the best you have to offer, including your integrity. As food for thought, around the same time I heard the above advice, I started to notice that one thing most of my favorite authors had in common was kindness. Not Disney Princess kindness. Unflinching, unapologetic kindness. Kindness in how they delivered tough truths, so they could actually be swallowed. Kindness in refusing to allow even the most minor character to come across as two-dimensional. Kindness in how they developed their voices without artifice, knowing that, while contrivance and design might seem more sexy or thrilling, the most touching thing a writer can do is stay honest.

Even if you don’t share my tastes, I think you will find that your favorite authors offer something deep and lasting, rather than something quick and shocking. And, if anything, they offer us the chance to see that we can navigate the world without having to pretend everyone we love is dead. Instead, they show us how to bring them along, flaws and all, and how doing so can make us feel more whole. Not because we are free of all responsibility and worrisome care, but because we flourish anyway.

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