Writing the Dead: How Do I Write Someone Who’s Not Here Anymore?

Aside from “apocalyptic fairytale”, one of the first descriptors that comes to mind when somebody asks about my novel is “fictionalized memoir.” True, I’ve never hung out with vampires and angels or been offered immortality by the Devil. I’ve never destroyed a city, and I don’t live in Los Angeles or have a girlfriend (ha!). But despite all the “fiction”, I still consider it to be the most honest piece of writing I have ever created. This is my story: a story of grief and evolution that I’m able to tell so honestly because I tell it through fantasy. At its core the novel is about acceptance of loss and empowerment through heartbreak, and each wild and ostentatious plot point simply helps me work through those in my own way (not to mention makes for a much better read). I suppose every good writer (let’s assume I’m a good writer) channels much of his or her self into their characters, but to me, my protagonist and I are one in the same. Perhaps the reason I’m still revising the damn thing is because mine and my character’s journey is still ongoing.

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I wrote the first draft seven years ago, a year after the loss of my uncle David–the only man I’ve ever loved as a father. My journey began the day David died, and so did my character’s. In the novel, David’s death sets the events in motion, so naturally, I felt the best place to begin was the morning he died. It took me three drafts and a cousin’s critique of the novel to realize why that was wrong.

“You know David, and I know David, but nobody else has any idea who he is,” she said.

“Why should it matter that he’s dead? The audience doesn’t know what he means to you.”

It became clear that to tell the story I needed to tell, I’d have to make my audience love David as much as I did. I needed to begin before his death so my readers could actually meet him. In my philosophy of writing, the author becomes the character he’s writing each time he or she writes them. Whether they’re the narrator, a primary, or a secondary character, when that character becomes the focus of a line, a page, a chapter, the author breathes life into them by becoming them. In short, I had to become my uncle. And that’s where I’ve been for a year.

In Memoriam

Writing somebody who actually exists is always difficult–especially if that person is dead. Not only are you forced to recall every mannerism, temperament, and manner of speaking, but you feel an incredible obligation to do that person justice. I’ve recently been obsessed with the phrase, “If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die.” Writing immortalizes the person who is written about, and when you write about somebody who has died, you are establishing their Memorial. Its a belated eulogy, and getting it right can be the best way to honor them. I did say the eulogy at David’s funeral, but this is how I get to memorialize him.

Beginning my story after David died was easy enough. I wasn’t writing from memory; I was writing my evolution as I was (am) evolving. But bringing him into the story as a character, not a memory, requires me to reach into the past so I can become him, and that carries its own issues.

First and foremost, its been eight years. Almost a decade has passed since I heard David’s voice, so reaching into the past requires…well, a lot of reaching. I have so many memories to draw from, but when filtered through time, they are muted and almost untouchable, like listening to somebody speak through a thick pane of glass. And there’s no single memory that will work in the context of the story. Like piecing together a mosaic from fragments of different images, I’m using my memories of David to create an entirely new experience with him. All I can do is infer from what I know about my uncle’s personality and what I actually remember to write him as honestly as possible.

And speaking of creating a new experience, this chapter happens to be one of the most painful things I’ve ever written.

I never said goodbye to my uncle. We knew he was losing against the cancer, but the procedure to alleviate the pressure building up in his abdomen (he had liver cancer) wasn’t supposed to kill him. But it did, and it robbed me of my goodbye. David died on April 20 2006, just four days after his 57th birthday, which happened to fall on Easter that year. I was on Spring Break, and in some vicious cosmic joke, I was spending my vacation at my father’s house. My father: a man who failed so profoundly in his role as “dad” that I actually hid my relationship with him from David after we resumed contact in 2004.

I knew David was having his procedure that Thursday, but didn’t think twice of it when I told my father I’d spend the week at his house. The family had a party for him on Easter Sunday that I phoned into so I could wish him a Happy Birthday. He sounded fine. I called him that Wednesday, the night before his procedure, to wish him luck. He told me he was happy I was getting to spend time with my father, and I told him I’d talk to him soon. He sounded fine. The next morning, I got the phone call:

“He’s gone, papi.”

I don’t exactly “blame” myself for not being there, but I do lament that I couldn’t say goodbye. There was so much left to say, and to this day I see him as an unfinished chapter in my life. This sense of loss (I feel the loss of closure as much as I feel the loss of the person) is compounded by a certain cynicism I have towards my memories. Years after his death, David’s widow told me, for whatever reason, that he and I were not as close as I thought. Her motives are immaterial. The fact is that words can kill, and her careless words killed the sense of security I had that I was irrefutably David’s son in every way that mattered. No matter how strongly I can feel our bond in my memories of him, those memories are tainted now, undermined. Its hard writing about somebody when the voice in your head is asking if you even have the right to.

Saying Goodbye

All the second guessing has made this extremely difficult to write about. I struggle with bouts of rage when I think about all that was left unresolved, bittersweet nostalgia when I think of him, and frustration when I don’t get a scene right. Its a grueling process, but its necessary. I took it for granted the audience would know how much David meant to me. This is the most crucial chapter of the novel because it establishes that, and once that happens, the rest of the story matters. And its the most crucial chapter for me, because no matter how difficult it is, I can feel it freeing me.

Instead of beginning with the phone call that changed my life, the novel now begins on David’s birthday. He’s in the hospital, and my character is spending the day with him–just to keep him company. He doesn’t know, as I didn’t know, that this will be his last chance, but he’s making the most of the time. There isn’t any birthday party because it needs to be intimate; I’m keeping the scene to just David and I.

I’m giving myself the goodbye I never had.

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