How Do You Write About Death?

I don’t seem to know how to write about death, so I’m going to write about writing about death.

A few days ago, I encountered a problem: I realized everything I’d written before about death — and most things I’ve read about death — might have been wrong.

Here’s how I’ve seen death written about before:

The living character is in denial, frantically trying to reach the dead person. Once they can’t, they feel this need to have proof the person is really dead, as in, dead-dead. Whatever that proof is, they start crying because of it. The crying might be a bit hysterical. They decide they don’t know how they can go on and beg the universe for it to not be real (and hey, in half of the books I read, it’s not totally real, so maybe begging the universe works). There are likely some flashbacks to the person being alive, either italicized or in totally different chapters than the modern day parts. Slowly the person copes and moves on.

On Saturday, I found out one of my favorite professors — someone who helped pay for my post-assault medical care out of the pure desire to help support her students, someone who took the time to tell me my assault wasn’t my fault, someone who encouraged my writing — had died.

Here’s what actually happened:

I saw the announcement as an article in my Facebook News Feed, right at the top like Facebook knew I knew her in real life. (Given how much of my data Facebook likely has, they probably did know.) I stared at it for a few seconds. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it — I was more waiting to cry. I was conscious of the fact that I wasn’t crying, and trying to get myself to cry because that’s what everyone is supposed to do. I cared about her, dammit. Why wasn’t I showing it? Was I a psychopath? (Or was I a sociopath? I actually took a moment to Google the difference.)

Then I clicked on the article. I took the words in on the first read, actually. I mean it was hard not to take it in when it was so blunt: Celebrated writer Ellis Avery, 46, has died. There’s really no way to misinterpret that. The post went on to chronicle the health issues I knew she’d had, the awards I knew her novels had won, etc. It quoted a passage from one of her books. Then it just kind of stopped, leaving me there wondering how it could feel so incomplete yet complete at the same time.

I didn’t know what to do other than follow the script of being in a novel as much as possible, so I did that reaching-out-to-the-dead-person thing. I got one sentence into that email before the tears came. (It turns out I do have feelings!) I sent the email anyway, then had this irrational fear that Professor Avery was actually still alive and would wonder what the hell I was talking about in such cryptic language. Or that her partner would for some reason be checking her email and wonder who the hell this person was sending this strange two-sentence email to someone who clearly wasn’t alive anymore. There was a really bizarre moment where I almost didn’t want her to be alive to see my desperate awkward attempted contact. Still, I tried nicely asking the universe for it not to be real, but sadly I have yet to encounter a time-traveling machine or alternate universe.

Next up in the novel way with dealing about death was doing flashbacks. Naturally, I wrote a long Facebook post going over old memories of my classes with her and all the ways in which she’d helped me. I watched many of my classmates do the same. I felt like I was coping okay eventually.

That’s where I lost the narrative arc. I found myself writing a second email to the email address I really have no business emailing. I got sad again. I cried. Where did all the coping go?

I wanted to write about how I was feeling. I tried. I failed. Then I got angry. Here I’d been taught all these important things about building emotions in writing and having some sort of evolution of a character, and I was going forwards then backwards then sideways. There was no evolution, no clear change. Everything sounded numb and detached. I couldn’t write about this. Even though she was a huge supporter of different ways of going about telling stories, Professor Avery would be mortified; I had to be doing it wrong.

Death is, in many ways, incompatible with writing — which is shocking considering how many literary works revolve around death. There are no greater stakes, right? Who doesn’t write about death? But it just doesn’t fit in an aesthetically pleasing way, at least, not for me. Maybe I’m strange in having some kind of dysfunctional numb grieving process that really isn’t a process but actually just a series of strange emotional moments with little progression or cohesion. I don’t have pretty metaphors to add or new words to describe pain. I don’t know how to wrap things up.

Actually, that might be part of the problem. Death doesn’t have an ending — pieces of writing have to.

In that vein, I don’t have a great takeaway for this blog post. I guess I more want to acknowledge that maybe sometimes the art of writing isn’t channeling our emotions and life experiences perfectly into our works. I always thought being able to master that art was the trick, and was also confused at how everyone else seemed to have emotional arcs more linear than mine. But maybe it turns out the trick to writing is actually being able to contort our emotions and life experiences to fit our characters and plots. Maybe being a sideways mess is normal, and being able to redirect that forward is the art.

Even in death, Ellis Avery taught me something about writing.

End of Week Review: February 3, 2019

Favorite experience this week: Watching the most important sporting event of the year … The Penguin Bowl! You heard me right. It streams every year. Check it out!

Least favorite experience this week: It turns out the whole “chocolate is poison to cats” thing is true. I spent a solid hour freaking out about my cat, Zyva, licking the remnants of my brother’s chocolate lava cake that he casually left in my room. (Luckily, she’s totally fine — she didn’t each very much.)

Wackiest experience this week: Losing to my seven-year-old sister in Monopoly at an Outback Steakhouse.

Interesting article this week: My friend and fellow survivor-activist Alyssa Leader — now a law student, by the way — wrote a killer opinion piece in The New York Times about the importance of enforcing Title IX protections for survivors. Definitely worth a read.

Favorite book this week: Lauren Oliver’s Broken Things! It’s one of those books that you read from start to finish.

Photo from this week: My dad made the mistake of getting a dart board and we’re obsessed. We play to 300 instead of using the regular rules, and let’s say we’re a touch competitive …


End of Week Review: January 27, 2018 (I Totally Didn't Miss Last Week Edition)

Let’s pretend like I remembered to do this last week and carry on …

Favorite experience this week: I don’t know if anyone else has heard of Terraforming Mars (the board game), but my family is officially obsessed — we’ve played three times this week. My dad called me to tell me he and my stepmom were stuck in a bar after closing because they were in a middle of the game (yes, they really took a board game to a bar for a date), so when I say obsessed, I mean obsessed.

Least favorite experience this week: I spent some quality time in the hospital learning about every possible way to misdiagnose a stomach flu. On the bright side, I got free apple juice!

Wackiest experience this week: My nine-year-old sister beat everyone in the family at darts.

Interesting article this week: The honorary New Yorker in me (thanks, Columbia!) is in hysterics about this Onion article: “8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City a Horrible Place to Live.” If you’ve lived there, you’ll get it, even if you love the city.

Favorite book this week: I finally finished I Have the Right To by my wonderful college classmate and fellow survivor-activist Chessy Prout (and Jenn Abelson). It’s a beautiful memoir about her experience as a survivor. It honestly had me in tears for a lot of it; it’s so down to earth and even though my assault experiences were different than hers, I identify with so much of her writing about the aftermath. It makes me super optimistic about the portrayal of sexual assault in literature and survivors being able to see people like themselves in what they read. Read it if you can!

Photo from this week: My attending nurse at the hospital being optimistic (or annoyed at me— still unsure which):


End of Week Review: January 12, 2018 (I'm Back Edition)

Okay, okay. So maybe my New Year’s resolution from 2015 to blog more took some time to get through. Only three years late, right? But after officially finishing binge-watching (well, binge re-watching) every Office, House, and Modern Family episode, I really have no excuse for my blog silence. So here we go!

Favorite experience this week: I finally got to play my dad in badminton again for the first time in several months.

Least favorite experience this week: Losing in a blowout to my dad in the aforementioned badminton game.

Wackiest experience this week: Someone random on Twitter started tagging me in a series of odd writing prompts. I think the universe is trying to tell me to finish my work in progress.

Interesting article this week:Want to Know Why Tumblr is Cracking Down on Sex? Look to FOSTA/SESTA” in The Establishment (giving a really good outline for the counterarguments to two government bills)

Favorite book this week: Sadie by Courtney Summers. I saw everyone on Twitter talking about this book, so I finally sat down to read it. I join the chorus of readers who are officially wrecked in the aftermath. The hype isn’t a joke.

Photo from this week:

My cat, Zyva, deciding the wombat stuffed animal my friend Caitlin bought for me is now hers

My cat, Zyva, deciding the wombat stuffed animal my friend Caitlin bought for me is now hers

If You're Writing About Assault ...

Content warning: this post will discuss sexual violence

By popular request, I’ve decided to write a post (or rather, rewrite something I posted years ago on an anonymous Tumblr) about a major trend in Young Adult books right now: sexual assault.

As a sexual assault survivor who longed to see myself in literature beyond Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, I’m excited to see authors tackling sexual violence in YA literature. However, with this trend obviously comes the issue of how sexual assault is written about. Some YA books about sexual assault are written by authors with limited personal experience , so I thought I’d put together a post (like this one I did about queer stereotypes in YA) on tips for writing about sexual assault.

  1. Sexual assault is not a plot device. I can’t say this enough. It’s not for shock value, waking up drifting readers, or just making a book “edgy” or “modern” (given #MeToo). So if you’re just putting sexual assault in your book casually for shock value, please don’t. It’s serious and if you’re going to put it in your book, you need to do it with tremendous thought and care.

  2. Graphic details aren’t necessary. Most of the YA books I’ve read that I find do justice to sexual assault don’t have tons of graphic details. Sure, they have some, but the details are limited. For example, All the Rage by Courtney Summers just mentions a hand on the survivor’s mouth. A small detail, but not too graphic. Some books mention some physical pain in the aftermath. If you’re adding a bunch of graphic details beyond that, ask yourself why. They aren’t needed to show the reality of how sexual assault impacts survivors, and honestly, graphic details can often come across as being mostly for shock value. It’s YA, not porn (to be blunt).

  3. Survivors react differently. One of my friends moved on pretty normally; one didn’t know it was sexual assault until months later; one had a nervous breakdown; I tried to act normal but inside I totally lost it, though people tell me I seemed normal on the outside. Some days are normal, others are a mess, often for no specific reason. Not everyone melts down, and not everyone can ignore it; vary up your character’s reactions!

  4. Survivors and perpetrators can be anyone. Survivors can identify as any gender and be assaulted by people of any gender. Not all survivors are able-bodied. Not all survivors are white (and people of color are actually more likely to be assaulted). While most perpetrators are white cisgender men, some aren’t.

  5. Assaults can fit different molds. I usually only see two types of assaults in YA literature: an assault at a party where the survivor is drunk, or childhood sexual abuse where the survivor totally hates the abuser, and that’s about it. Oh, and everything happens at night. Assaults can totally fit that mold, but assaults can be totally different. They can be within intimate relationships that already exist, in households, at school, etc. Statistically most assaults happen during the day. And maybe the survivor doesn’t hate the perpetrator completely.

  6. Listen to survivors. Don’t use Law & Order: SVU as your guide. Look at what actual survivors say about their experiences for guidance online, and when they talk about things that bother them in depictions of violence or come to you directly about a problem with something you’ve written, don’t ignore them. (P.S. Feel free to contact me if you have a concern about something you wrote.)

In summary, be intentional, empathetic, and careful. Sexual assault is so important in the lives of young adults, and if you write about it well, you can change someone’s life.

Do you have suggestions for what to add to this list? Comment below or Tweet at me (it can be a DM) and I’ll add it!

Here are things suggested through comments and DMs thus far (edited for grammar and clarity):

  • Not every assault is rape, and rape isn’t necessarily more severe than other forms of assault.

  • Putting your rapist in jail isn’t always the goal and isn’t always necessary to healing.

  • Telling people about a sexual assault isn’t always this moment where everything changes for the better. Sometimes it sucks.