The first time I ever taught an undergraduate fiction writing class, I sat down to read the stories my students had turned in and gradually found myself becoming extremely alarmed.
Protagonists faced anxiety and boredom, struggled with job conflicts and the loss of innocence and the deaths of loved ones. They fought with their boyfriends and girlfriends, they pushed their enemies off of cliffs and then went on the lam, they developed multiple personalities, they were suspended from school. And then, once they were entangled in complicated, seemingly impossible binds, once their authors had no idea what to do with them next, those protagonists started dying.
I often tell my students that awareness of mortality underlies all good writing, but this was not what I meant, I thought as I read story after story, watching main characters drop like flies. They were stabbed by random strangers, they slipped and fell off of bridges, they contracted quick-acting fatal diseases. The character mortality rate in my class was roughly two thousand times that of the nonfictional population.
This is when I instituted the No Death Rule in my classrooms. I kept reminding my students that life is full of hard truths. They didn’t have to resolve anyone’s conflicts, but they did have to let their characters face them. They therefore were not allowed to kill off their characters.
So my students got to work, and gradually, characters mired themselves in problems once again, inadvertently alienating their friends, accidentally burning down their houses, struggling with addiction and mental illnesses and infectious diseases.
And then, a bus turned a corner, bearing down on one beleaguered young female character, knocking her to the sidewalk. But she didn’t die.
Instead, she went into a coma. And while she was in the hospital, unconscious, everyone who had wronged her, her parents, her teachers, her boyfriend, gathered around her bed and agreed to be nicer to her if only, if only she would live. The character woke up and all of her problems had been magically solved.
That was when I instituted a No Death No Coma Rule.
That soon had to be followed by a No Death No Coma No Convenient Alien Abductions Rule, which eventually became a No Death No Coma No Alien Abduction No Waking Up and Discovering it Was All A Dream Rule.
Today, the character survival rate has exponentially increased in my students’ stories, but I suspect that that’s because I no longer teach beginning fiction classes, where I’m guessing that high character attrition rates hold steady.
I do believe, though, that all good writing is, on some level, about the reality of death and loss and what we do in the face of that. At least that conception has been key for me on every one of my own recent projects, be it a ghost story, an essay about developing huge floaters in my eyes that I was convinced would permanently obstruct my vision, or my forthcoming book about rereading favorite books from childhood and visiting places related to them. The essay about my eyes didn’t really click into place until I connected it to my dread of my body failing me—and the survival instincts that helped me learn to live with, and see beyond, the floaters. I was only able to finish my book when I understood the role of my mother and aunts, all gone now, in introducing many beloved books to me, and the ways that those women live on when I return to those old favorites.
Awareness of mortality underlies all of the work that I’m teaching right now as well. David Shields’ essay “42 Tattoos,” ostensibly a list of 42 facts and stories about tattoos, accumulates details that turn the piece into something bigger, a meditation on our desire to leave a permanent mark despite the reality of impermanence. Even my Time Travel Fiction class, which fills quickly with students expecting science fiction and, while not limited to that genre, does incorporate some popular literature, bears out this idea. Slaughterhouse Five, Time and Again, Kindred, The Time Traveler’s Wife, When You Reach Me—these novels demonstrate the common elements of fiction across genres and include time travel as a means for social commentary, psychological examination, and historical recreation—and as a hedge against mortality.
For a time when I was teaching beginning fiction, I had a reputation among my students for being in deep denial. One time I heard a student whisper, “Remember, McCabe won’t let anyone die,” which briefly made me feel powerful, as if my classroom is my own small empire where I can actually decree that death will no longer exist and the universe is obliged to obey. The students were tiptoeing around me, humoring me, just like all the subjects who weren’t allowed to point out that the emperor had no clothes.
But of course my point was that most of us don’t, say, get abducted by aliens when things get hard—with the exception of Slaughterhouse Five’s Billy Pilgrim, for whom alien abduction becomes a coping mechanism as brutal war experiences lead him to become dislocated from time. Most of us don’t conveniently slip off any metaphorical or literal bridges or vanish into copout comas or wake to find it’s all a dream when conflicts overwhelm us. In the end, the techniques favored by many beginning students were ways to escape from mortality rather than to acknowledge it.
Most of the writers I work with nowadays know that plots should emerge from characters rather than be imposed upon them. But I frequently find it a useful reminder that good writing maintains awareness of mortality while it ultimately documents how we struggle and discover and survive anyway.