Wednesday, June 4, 2014

On the Blog Train.

A couple of writer friends have tagged me on what they're calling a blog train, a series of questions about what projects and processes we're engaged with at the moment. I'm a little late to this but I have a good excuse: I just got back from a month in the south of India and, well, jet lag is for real. But Brook Wilensky-Lanford and Mary Valle are rock stars as far as I'm concerned. Some calls for participation shouldn't be ignored. Besides, its always helpful to think about how I organize and describe my own work--and here's a chance to engage in that exercise. Through the dissipating fog I hop on the blog train.

What am I working on?

A Book! With a capital B. Next year Beacon Press will publish a project that I've been researching for about six years, SITTING VIGIL: IN SEARCH OF A GOOD DEATH. I've known Amy Caldwell there for a few years and I'm delighted to work with her. The books starts with the question: Why do so few Americans die the way they want to? For the past 50 years, medicine, culture, and law have made it increasingly difficult to know what's coming and how to plan for it. It's my first book and the manuscript is due this fall so I'm excited to be diving deep into the writing phase.

I also write a monthly column for The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University, called "The Patient Body." Because the material in the column overlaps with much of the book, I get to think freely, to test ideas, to ask questions without requiring that they fit into a larger structure. It's good fun and the editor there, Kali Handelman, has been super smart about making me go deeper, think harder, explain more clearly. And I'm also happy to be a contributing nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine, although to be honest, they're getting more writing out of me right now than editing because of my book deadline. These things are great for book procrastination, even as I use the book to procrastinate them! I'm always cheating on one project with another and I think that keeps me from getting stale. I recently started a series of tragic short stories--about suicides, car accidents, runaway trains--which have turned out to be incredibly enjoyable.

How does my work/writing differ from others in its genre? 

Re: SITTING VIGIL: Most books about the social and cultural aspects of death are clinical and academic or sentimental. While there are some really great exceptions (Sherwin Nuland's 1995 bestseller How We Die or, say, Jessica Mitford's classic 1963 take down of the funeral industry The American Way of Death), I find a lot of the books out there to be informative and great for research but not necessarily a good read. I first thought of this project as a memoir; the experience of caring for my father until he died in 2005 rocked me and, as someone in my late thirties, I wanted to know why I was so unprepared for it. My approach from the beginning has been fueled by intense investigative curiosity. I became a hospice volunteer in order to describe the dying process first hand. I spend a lot of time with doctors, bioethicists, nurses, preachers, home health aids, lawyers and of course people who are dying and their families. Because I started out writing poetry, I think I'll always begin with personal experience--told with as much detail as I can muster--but I really like the big hard questions, often those that come from tearing apart terms that go unexamined even as they are used as placeholders in our conversations: hope, dignity, a good death. And I'm scrappy; I like to dabble in theory and policy, but ground those knowledges and facts in the stories my patients tell me. I try to break down the big words and ideas into concrete details, to ask the questions we often consider too impolite: What is love, really? What is care? Quality of life? Choice? I figured the best way to examine how Americans die was to go out there and watch them die, to dispense with the euphemisms, to pull back the pale blue hospital curtains, to ask patients what they were physically feeling, seeing, fearing, and expecting. And I'm wedding those narratives to deep reporting. SITTING VIGIL is story driven and it's incredibly personal, even as it comes out of years of research. What I hope is that the writing is creative and engaging even as the social justice aspects of death and dying are.

Why do I write what I do?

The simple answer is I write about death and dying because I'm fascinated and often perplexed by how individuals reckon with it. I don't think it's false humility for me to say that it's easy to write about dying; death is inherently profound and dramatic. Sure, losing patient after patient, always grieving takes a toll--I'm constantly in awe of hospice workers, doctors and nurses--but I've never had to explain why this project matters or why we should care about how we die. It's impossible to write about someone's death and the challenges they've encountered without getting emotionally involved, without encountering pain and struggle, without being schooled on empathy and sympathy all the time. In an environment where decisions are so limited and poignant, I have been taught by my patients and interviewees what setting priorities is all about. I joke that my next book will be about puppies and butterflies but I doubt it. I like the weight of this subject. And I have to admit that it's a subject, like religion, that makes people squirm. I like that.

How does my writing process work?

I'm terribly neat and organized, I think because I'm afraid of losing details, afraid that I won't recall an experience or emotion. I'm kind of flighty and I don't want to miss anything important so I can't go anywhere without a notebook. That wealth of material often leads to culling details or incidents that later, in context or on the page, lose their vitality or become redundant. I've got a building pile of clippings, notes, and articles for each chapter and because I've been working on this project for so long, some of them have had to shift around until they found a home. But I did, at least for this project, have to start with a fairly refined outline. Of course, I'm always proving myself wrong, always rearranging things, either in the process of writing (which is definitely the best way of thinking/explaining/discovering for me) or with new research. Because I have this kind of organization and structure, I'm able to experiment with how to best juxtapose different issues and contexts. For me the adage is true: form is liberating.

Right now, with a deadline looming, my schedule is really structured. I work at home and control my schedule and environment as much as possible. When I'm cranking, I'm pretty much 9 to 5. I don't get online till noon, I have daily and weekly goals. And I'm happy like a kid when I meet them. I've never been good on limited sleep so I try to have strict wake and bed times. I'm kind of like an old lady that way. And I have to edit on paper. If I try to read my own stuff online, I get lost. So I have to print out a draft, spread it out on my dining room table or the floor. Then I can see it.

I'm lucky to have a great writing community, from the talented and astute members of my writing group to fellow travelers who are engaged with death and dying, to my agent, Laurie Abkemeier, who has turned out to be a brilliant reader of my work. Often, I find myself writing something and running it through a couple of lenses: a bioethicist, a great long-form journalist, my sister, an academic friend. It's not that I'm trying to write for everybody (although I hope what I am doing is broadly engaging) but that I want to be sure I'm thinking in the round rather than coming at anything with a destination already in mind. Doing so keeps me from making assumptions, and that's the purpose, right? To see and record, to describe and explain as honestly as I can.