I have a sense that what I ought to do here, on these pages, is speak with you about what it means to write, and about why I keep doing it year after year, and why you shouldn't unless you feel you must. Maybe, along these lines, I could also offer some entrenched, toadish advice, which I'd only half believe in, about opening sentences, and subjects and predicates, and
Well, here's the thing: I don't want to talk to you about any of this. I want to talk to you about dying.
So here goes, as simply as I can. Things keep dying, nothing else ever. Your goldfish named Swimmy, and your cat named Oliver, and your dog named Annie, and your cousin named Greg, and your mother named Susan, and a lot of other things, too: aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, friends, those you'll never know. Maybe those names are my names, but the things are your things too.
Here's some advice: go sit in the library and reread Barthelme's "The School" or Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues." Then go into the basement and read Cheever's "The Death of Justina." I want to go on listing names and titles, but I'd better stop myself before I'm consumed by the impulse to be cursory and indirect. This isn't what I want. I want to talk about dying, yes, but not in the abstract. I want to talk about things that make me uncomfortable.
Like this: I once shoveled a dead, maggot-infested opossum from a crawl space beneath my house. I'd found it by the smell. I couldn't stop gagging. It took me a long time afterward to feel clean.
Or like this: when I was sixteen or seventeen, I shot a bird out of a tree with a handgun. It was a tiny bird, probably a finch, and it was up pretty high in some kind of tree that I didn't recognize then, though I might recognize it now. The gun was an old gun, belonging to my friend's dead dad; it was a .38. I shouldn't have been able to hit that bird with a handgun. It was just luck. And I didn't kill it. Instead it fell from the tree and flapped about on the ground, and I couldn't shoot it again. My friend did.
Or like this: as an undergraduate, I worked part-time at a home for the developmentally disabled. I went in early in the mornings before the residents were awake, and got breakfast ready. One morning, when we, my coworker and I, went to rouse everyone from bed, I found a dead woman. Her name was Gaye. She was in her room on the floor. She had had a seizure in the night. Her blood had settled, so that the bottom half of her was bluish and her top half white. My co-worker, whose name I no longer remember, administered CPR. I heard Gaye's ribs crack.
Or: after college, I worked for a time as a bicycle messenger in Chicago. Sometime in the summer, I heard over my radio that a pedestrian had been struck and killed by a car. I rode over to see what was left to see. The body had been removed. Firemen had arrived to clean up. They hosed down Wacker Drive. The street, with all that water, looked flooded with blood.
Or: when I got into graduate school, and after I'd packed up all my things in a rental truck, my mom had five strokes while I was on the road between Chicago and Seattle. She was forty-nine. She was comatose, but comatose encompasses a range of possibilities that you might not have imagined. I hadn't. With two exceptions, she could not move. She could control her blinking, and, to some degree, her right toe. She drifted in and out of consciousness. Some days she would spend no time awake. Others she was aware and staring out at the hospital room, unable to move or speak. She lived like that for fifty-four days.
What bothers me is this: I can't really write about these things, none of them, or what they mean to me, or how I come back to them time and again, at turns thoughtful, or grieving, or angry, or with the kind of quiet loneliness that overtakes us all, I think, no matter how surrounded by people we are (and I am, by Jove!; my house is a circus of children and animals) when we're struck by how wildly out of control this business is, our lives, and that it ends often without notice, and often poorly, and often with a great deal of pain.
And here's the thing: I write about it, over and over again. Every single time that I try, I fail. And finally, almost despite myself, I begin to incorporate the failure into the story. That is, failure becomes part of the mechanism. What else can I do? Maybe if I let my failures begin to dictate my story's shape—then I can draw a circle around the thing that I have failed to say. Does that make sense to you? Fiction is not about what we can say, it's about what we can't. It circles around the subjects that can't be spoken, and, at best, its form circumscribes the negative space where we imagine the unspeakable to sit. But even this spatial metaphor is a kind of lie that cannot be helped, because the unspeakable cannot sit in a place. There is no place to sit.
This is all a little ambiguous, isn't it? That's what I want to tell you. Here, right here, is where you can find the heart of the heart of your story. Not in a place but in no place. Not in clarity but in ambiguity. (Now I should make it clear that I'm not talking about ambiguity on the sentence level. So, avoid this: "You saw the man with binoculars.")
Memories are stories, too, don't you think? I do. We tell them to ourselves, over and over again, always circling a thing—your mother, or your child—but never fully describing it. The same memory can be sad or funny, depending on the way we tell it to ourselves. Is that why I work through these things again and again in my fiction? To find another angle? I don't know. Is it through these stories, these memories, that we stay alive after we die? Do little bits of us live on in other's minds, as our story becomes part of their story? It surprises me that I'm going to quote Roger Ebert, but here I go: "That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear." Again, I don't know. I like this idea. The sadness of it is appealing to me, the slow winking out, as of a thousand lights. There's a kind of tragic arc, don't you think? But I can't help but remain afraid it's worse than this expression. There's too much clarity, and its attendant comfort, in those lines for me to fully endorse them. Do you ever really exist in the mind of others? How fully? Are you contained by a story then? At what point does the story fail?
Maybe if I steal someone else's words then that writer will live again. Or maybe he won't. This is the vein of artistic immortality that I hear people speak of with a conviction that I cannot muster. In my provisional analysis, I wonder what it matters if it was me or Samuel Beckett who said: "All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."