You cannot trust her

A cousin of mine has died.  I did not know him well.  The last time I saw him we were
children.  My mother stays in touch
with his parents but we cousins have lost all contact.  He was living in Queensland but I know
nothing else at this stage other than that he was dead for four days before
they found him and the police said there were no suspicious circumstances, or
words to that effect.  He died of
natural cases. 

To me there is something
horrendous about the idea of dying alone, not so much the fact of dying itself
but of being left unburied or non-cremated, left unattended after death.   To be found eventually in a state
of decay. 
I once wrote a short story about
this, in the early days when I first began to tackle the short story form and
made the mistake of giving it to my husband to read.  He was furious with me after he had
read the story because to him it lacked any redeeming features and disturbed him too much.
It was a good lesson for me in that
I stopped asking my husband to read my writing in early drafts.  People talk about the need to have your
‘best’ reader for early drafts of your writing, someone whom you can trust to
be honest about the writing, someone able to make constructive suggestions
about how to improve it, not someone who will undermine your efforts, or, almost
worse still, someone who will praise your writing to the heavens without
observing how and whether the piece is working.
I have a couple of friends to whom
I send early drafts of my writing, one to whom I send fiction, another to whom
I send my more non-fictional efforts. 
Both approach the task in different ways.
First up though, I call on my upon reader
self.  She is unreliable.  I
cannot trust her.  As much as I cannot trust our former dog – the one we call the bronze heeler.  He offers nothing other than an image of the real thing.

Doubtless, you’ve heard the
expression: ‘murder your darlings’? 
It’s hard to murder your darlings without an accomplice, someone who
will tell you what darlings need to be killed off.  On my own I am not good at detecting such perils in my
writing.  My darlings seduce me
into thinking they should stay.  I should
spare them, if not for now, then for later.
 I read recently that someone has decided to promote October
as the month in which you only buy what you need month.  For some reason this notion appeals to
me.  The idea is that every time
you go to make a purchase in October you ask yourself the question: Do I really
need this?  And if you do not, then you return the item to the shelves. 
If I could apply the same principle
to my writing, I might never create the darlings I would later need to kill off.
 On the other hand, for a writer
not to allow whatever emerges to creep onto the page might be problematic.  It’s better to have darlings to kill off than to have nothing at all. 

And here again I think of my cousin, gone now.  I do not know whether he had a family of his own beyond his family of origin.  I only know that at the time of his death he was isolated and perhaps all too easily forgotten.   

Among her seventy two reasons why writers
write, Margaret Atwood includes one about memorialising the past.  It’s our way of keeping on going after
we are gone, in the written word. 
The trouble is so many of our words will get buried under the weight of
the world’s words.  
Given that the Internet never forgets, these words could be a tribute to my unnamed cousin.  I hope someone somewhere cares enough to remember him better than I can here.

49 thoughts on “You cannot trust her”

  1. Finding someone to trust, be it writing or these other arts we attempt to create, is difficult. I do like the writing here a lot… It is all very good. Trust me.

  2. What in other readers I have found most helpful is not their opinions but their confusions – if they think one thing has happened & I think I said something else. Once I understand where the confusion set in I can fix it, if appropriate.

  3. Condolences on the death of your cousin. What an awful way to be found; dead for four days (or so). I agree with you that people ought not die alone. It always strikes me a being uncivilized.

    I have a number of cousins who I haven't see since my childhood. I sort-o know where they are. But find then? No, sadly. The ties were lost at the end of our parents' generation.

    I never murdered any of my darlings. But then, I never knew I had any darlings to murder. Indeed, the whole process is, at best, peculiar. Murder, I find, is utterly unconscionable, at best.

    Besides, what is a darling, really?

  4. My mother is terrified of dying alone. I said, well if it is a sudden heart attack, you will barely know and if it isn't, you will press your medical alert button. I'd be terrified of a stroke or something like that and not been found.

    It was a fitting tribute to your late cousin.

  5. I am sorry for your loss. Dying alone and not being found for some time always says to me that the person must have lead a very lonely life.
    In which case I don't know what's sadder, dying or being lonely.

    A special friend passed away recently and we have been invited to contribute a tribute piece to our newsletter. (He was deservedly surrounded by his very loving family.)
    An elderley friend, not confident of her own writing skills asked if I would put her thoughts into words for her. I have just finished. Weeks after we spoke. It was the most difficult piece I have written. Trying to convey her feelings and emotions without over sentimentalising, but keeping it brief and accurate and portraying the man we both knew.
    I will give it to her tomorrow to read and approve.
    The only criticism I have had of my writing is also from my husband.
    He says I don't write the way I speak and for some reason I feel like a charlatan, a fraud. As though I have created a personality to write for me, but the comments I receive from others is often high praise and encouragement. I think I'll go with that.
    It is my hsuband who often says "When one person has one version and lots of people have a different version, who do you think is right?"
    Writing is not my life but I do love telling stories.
    Karen C

  6. Such a terribly sad situation. It wouldn't be the dying alone aspect that worries me, but the not being discovered for days/weeks is far more terrifying.

    Killing your darlings – I'm utterly useless at it and will go back and read old articles and wince…

  7. Like Kath said, dying alone is not so bad as not being found for some time after death. I've heard stories of people not being found for weeks or months.
    I may speak to my girls and see if we can work out some system where one or the other contacts me daily, then if I don't answer, they can come and check on me.
    The rest of your post reminds me why I am not a writer.

  8. To Anonymous two comments up: Ask your husband this: "When a person who can see describes a sunrise and lots of blind people have a different version, who do you think is right?"

  9. On June 8th I wrote my first poem of the year, my first piece of anything that wasn’t a blog or a comment on a blog. I gave it to my wife to read; she has been my gatekeeper for some fifteen years now and I trust her implicitly. She’s niggardly with her praise. Her response to my last novel for instance was, “It’s good.” High praise indeed. This poem got me a hug!

          The Old Codger

          My wife is not dead. Good
          I listen for her breaths—

          in and out, puff and wheeze—
          all of the proof I need.

          The patina of love
          has worn thin like patience

          and the drab truth revealed;
          I do not want to die

          alone. I go to pee,
          sitting down these days and

          wonder why so long for so
          little but, hey, that’s life.

          Back in the bed I check
          again. Just to be sure.

    It is, of course, a love poem. Love is… never having to say you’re sorry, …two hearts beating as one, …hanging onto life so you’re not the one who goes first.

    We watched a TV serial last week, one I recorded ages ago and we’ve just got round to it: White Heat. The precipitant event is the death, alone, of one of a group who were once flatmates—all bar the one have moved on with their lives—but who reunite to deal with the house which they jointly inherit. It was two weeks before the body was found and a far more significant event than any of us are led to realise. It’s worth a watch if it’s not already been shown where you are. It wasn’t the inspiration for the poem; I’ve had the opening stanza written for a good year but never knew what to do with it.

    I have no fear of death or dying alone. Being left alone clearly bothers me more than I’ve ever been willing to admit. I have wondered what I would do if Carrie went before me. I expect I’d start calling my daughter weekly at the same time so no one would have to break my door down when the smell got to be unignorable. Like you that would bother me because I don’t like to be a bother. I recall an old episode of Six Feet Under where a guy drove himself to the undertaker’s and dropped dead parked in his car outside. I bet there’s an app nowadays that calls someone if your heart stops or if there isn’t there should be, a wristband that continually checks your pulse. I’d wear one if I lived alone.

    My Octobers are no different to any other months. I never buy things I don’t need. It’s not that I’m an especially fugal Scot; that’s a misnomer. I am though. We have money, enough to replace anything that breaks, so we don’t fret about money but I learned a long time ago it’s best to resist the urge to buy things on impulse. Carrie and I were only talking about this a few days ago, how I’m the worst kind of shopper because I only go into a shop to buy things I need and frequently walk out of shops (even book or record stores) empty-handed. I find this easy because I want to buy everything and so how do you decide? I have to really, really, really want something for it to reach the point in my life where I’d be willing to pay hard cash for it and even then there’s a good chance I’d wait to get a used copy or stick in on my Amazon wish list and see what happens.

    The murdering of darlings is never something I’ve struggled with. I suspect this is because I edit constantly and so rarely get that attached to lines before I’ve reworked them. I do know when I’ve written a good line and hate to lose it. I would rework the surrounding text to keep it. Carrie never needs to edit my work that way. She serves me more as a copy editor. She’s virtually never has to say to me, “You can’t do that,” or, “You’re character would never say that.” Punctuation is my weak spot especially in some of the longer sentences.

  10. Such a sad theme, the ties were broken after our mothers' generation. We didn't keep in touch. They didn't keep in touch with us. Perhaps some people do keep in touch because it's important for them not to be alone, and those who don't aren't concerned about that aspect of life, or death.

  11. I loved the flow of this and now envy your best readers.

    I agree with you about dying alone. We all die alone, really, but the though of the body lying there, waiting for discovery, is distressing, not to mention what the person who finds you — and it could be anybody — is faced with…


  12. yah, I'd hate to have died alone and not been found for days. that's very sad, that there was no one in his life to even know that he was ailing and to check up on him. or perhaps he just suddenly stroked out. I often go days without talking to anyone other than my husband or strangers.

  13. I'm always surprised with where your stories take me, Elisabeth. A lovely tribute to your cousin, your bronzed dog and your murdered darlings. I think it was Anne Sexton who said "write to your dearest most beloved friend." Or maybe I'm dreaming. In any case I'm really sure we can none of us be objective about what we write, and I think that the most important thing is that having written something makes us feel more alive xx

  14. Yes, there is something sad about dying alone and not being found for some days – it does imply that nobody cares enough about you to be there doesn't it?
    As for that thing about October – it is probably true because it is about then that we begin to think of all the money we will need for Christmas presents.

  15. Death has been a theme in our family this month too – traumatic for those immediately affected by it, I am a sitter on the fence with this one though. Some of stories I have written are told specifically to immortalise those that we would otherwise forget, characters now long gone – forever remembered in a few unworthy lines in cyberspace.

  16. I had a relative through marriage who died, aparrently of a heart attack, alone in his apartment at the shockingly young age of 40. His ex-wife had been trying to get in contact with him in order to arrainge a visitation with the kids, and couldn't get through on the phone. She called his father, who rushed from Cleveland, in northern Ohio to Columbus, which is in the middle of the state. He convinced the landlord to let him into the apartment, and found his son dead. This goes beyond whether it's better to die alone or with someone there. Had he not been alone, he might not have died at all!

    As for the "darlings", I'm with Jim Murdoch on this one. If I'm lucky enough to hobble one together, I'll keep it and kill everything else.

  17. I trust you, Anthony, but it's good to hear once more that something makes sense to others. You do it too, I see. We post our work as it proceeds and look for a response from others as to how they see it going. we look for that authentic response. The blogosphere is a great place to find some initial feedback. Thanks, Anthony.

  18. Confusion can be wonderful, and helpfu,l as you suggest, Glenn. It's a good place from whence to see our miscommunications, and depending on the number of readers and perspectives we can get even more confused.

    Sometimes a little clarity shines through the muddle. A guiding light, if we're lucky.

    Thanks, Glenn.

  19. Murder is unconscionable Rob-bear, but the idea of killing off passages of writing that to the writer may be wonderful but not so to the reader is a for of murder I find less unconscionable here. In fact sometimes it may be a blessing.

    Words take the place of things and people, but they are not people. When real people die alone or get murdered it's appalling.

    Thanks, Rob-bear.

  20. I'm glad you found this a fitting tribute, Andrew. I suppose it depends on how you die as to whether it's bearable to die alone. A long, slow, terrifying death would have to be dreadful and made worse if endured alone, in most cases, I'd imagine, but a sudden death when the one who dies almost doesn't realise it's happening is a whole other matter.

    Thanks, Andrew

  21. It less a matter of not being able to trust yourself, in fact it's not matter at all. The only way to live is to trust yourself, but without a friend who knows how to tell you the truth and will do so tailored to your personality, this world doesn't let a person achieve her dreams. The trusted friend is mandatory to be able to rise above the mess the created by those dominant figures whose positions of power are undeserved.

    That's the way all aspects of life are, the only exception being your own writing. It's not that it is impossible to tune your own writing to the best communication the message of that script is capable of being, but it delays publications of all of your work by time that passed slower than ice age.

    Nearly any avid reader can sufficiently edit anyone's pages, but striking out your darlings should be a task you hold personally scared. The is a fine line between what should be cut out and what separates you and elevates your writing above most everyone else.

    It isn't easy being honest enough to admit when passive aggression has your mind's grip on the red ink pen. To admit it when it does translate to either a frigidly cold character or else one your relationship with is so intimate with it's the very vision of open relationships as they exist in heaven (in terms of editor executioner relationships with their author)

    those types of relationships require a very personalized dynamic with a tiny target to hit for the reader's job. There are ways that ignite a person's mind to create endless volumes of writing at the same time you are whipping out darlings without having any qualms about the struck out ones twenty minutes later by the reader.

    If a reader has that effect on a writer they are a keeper regardless of how crappy they are at suggesting changes. But anyone who tells you that all darlings are a no go is sabotaging your writing even if his title is "Sir" or "Mister President"

    Although I couldn't say for sure whether his sabotage was malicious in nature but even if it isn't, there is such a thing as recognizing one's own unintentional behavior, and besides, it's not mistakes that kills a relationship as much as how they are dealt with after the fact.

    The reactions are what really count in regards to the future, even if the dead always die of natural causes.

  22. Not everyone knows how to respond to a piece of writing and keep their own 'stuff' out of it. A prize-winning book that I published was almost killed off because of a trusted friends reaction to it. Later I realised that she was being triggered, and I rescued the book just in time. Now I tell people what I want from them: tell me what you like, understand my intention, and tell me how I can fulfil that intention [not yours] better.

  23. I agree, Karen, being lonely, seriously lonely would have to be worse perhaps than dying alone. My cousin chose to cut off from his family, which is sad, not only for him bit for the rest of his family.

    As for your husband as literary critic, its probably wise to take his thoughts with a measure of sand, a grain as they say or maybe many grains.

    Those closest to us are not always the best judges of what we produce in either direction. I know I have a tendency to view any of my children's efforts as brilliant and I'm clearly a prejudiced mother. The same can go for husbands, or beloved partners as well as estranged ones.

    Thanks, Karen.

  24. I know the feeling, Kath, the stuff of going back to the old writing and cringing at the words that once seemed so wonderful and now seem like so much dross.

    As for not being found for days, left alone in death, I agree Kath. As I said it's the worst. Antigone knows all about it.

    Thanks, Kath.

  25. It's a tough call being a writer – writing, River, but it has its pleasures.

    We all need a system as we get older, especially if we live alone, of making sure others check on us regularly so that we are not left alone not only in death but also in ill health. I reckon it's important not to be forgotten.

    Thanks, River.

  26. Beautiful post dear Elisabeth. I have recently been contemplating the concept of death and got caught up pursuing avenues of thinking and contemplations that made me very depressed so I stopped. At times this issue if better left alone, as we can never predict or imagine it, it is the big unknown and as such it will remain. I rather think about living.;) But I think we all have a fear of dying and being forgotten, physically and figuratively.
    As for writing, I view my blog writing as a diary and I often return to re-read my old posts, as they remind me of the past, not just in occurrences and history, but also when it comes to my thinking and my view of the world.
    Have a great week,

  27. I an see why Carrie gave you a hug after reading your poem, Jim. It's poignant and honest, a genuine love story.

    For some reason the idea of your narrator having to sit down to pee appeals to me. We Western women do it all the time and my four year old grandson often prefers to sit too. It's one of those things I expect men come to take for granted- the upright pee.

    I haven't seen White Heat but I'll look out for it. without a TV we rely on i-view, the things our ABC – your BBC – puts up on the computer free to air following its showing on TV. It's the only way I get to see many contemporary TV shows, but it's patchy.

    You're lucky that you don't suffer the compulsion to consume, as so many of us others do, Jim. It is so easy to spend money I find,especially with children and grandchildren around. They multiply my desires one hundred fold. I remember you talking more than once about a wish to give generous gifts to your daughter and how hard it is when she says no, and tells you to limit yourself to cheaper presents.

    The same with murdering darlings. I seem to create too any of them, rather like my desire to be generous and spend, while you're better at self restraint.

    Thanks, Jim.

  28. I suspect that at least on my mother's side, some of the ties that were broken, Joanne, were broken because of the sheer volume of my extended family.

    I just did the sums. I have sixteen first cousins on my mother's side. Fourteen of us grew up together as the children of new migrants to Australia. As far as I know all of these sixteen cousins, bar one, have formed relationships and extended through the addition of their own children.

    I have eight siblings, seven of whom have formed relationships and added to the gene pool with an additional 23 children among us.

    To my mind it's not humanly possibly unless you live in a close knit community like the Amish in America to continue ongoing relationships with this many people – and that does not include second cousins and the children of our children, the great grand children who already in my family of origin number ten with another one on the way.

    And even within this broad family of many members there are one or two or perhaps even three who choose to isolate themselves, to cut off from family and to die alone. It's sad but it happens.

    Thanks, Joanne.

  29. It's the idea of finding a person dead that's distressing, Pearl, however that death might have occurred, especially when the body lies unattended for days. And yet we feel differently when we come across bodies that have survived intact however dead in ice crevasses, or peat bogs after hundreds of years. Funny that it should feel so different then, like a joyous discovery.

    I agree with you, essentially, at least in psychological terms, we all die alone. It's a very personal and idiosyncratic journey.

    Thanks, Pearl.

  30. The way you wrote your comment, Ellen, it almost reads as though you've returned from the dead. I suspect you did not intend this, but if we could come back from the dead we might then be able to warn others about what works and what does not work in the dying process.

    Thanks, Ellen.

  31. I'm inclined to agree with you India about the importance of writing in such as way as it makes us feel more alive. The only trouble is – for me at least – there are times while I'm writing when the writing can seem quite dead.

    I know from experience that it's not necessarily dead. In fact sometimes when I write and feel most alive, as in most emotionally charged, the writing goes in the opposite direction and can seem quite dead, if over the top, to the reader.

    It's a puzzle, what works and what doesn't, but something keeps us in there.

    Thanks, India.

  32. Slow of me, Pat, I had not thought about the October no-spend as a preparation for Christmas excesses. You have a point there. Elsewhere I've read about it happening in July, maybe the beginning of a new financial year.

    I suppose to die alone is to give the impression no one cars, though it can mean other things as well. A rejection of others among other things, though of course if it takes days for people to notice you're gone then something else is presumably happening, including the possibility you've been forgotten. Perish the thought.

    Thanks, Pat.

  33. There's a memorial site somewhere in cyberspace Jane, where people can put up memorials to their departed loved ones. It does not seem such a terrible idea to me. Anything that helps with rituals around death. We all have to bear it someway, to survive it if we're left behind, to prepare for it as we head in that direction, and hopefully ,to experience as good a death as possible, if such were ever to exist.

    Thanks, Jane.

  34. That's such a sad story, Kirk and you're right I reckon: had your relative not been alone, he might not have died. Some deaths can be prevented if the symptoms are attended to in time.

    As for the darlings, Kirk, I suspect that one man's/woman's darlings could be another man's/woman's worst piece of writing. There's a definite subjectivity here. It's your own darlings you need to watch, eliminate or dress up.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  35. Reading between the lines here, Who, or at least trying to, I think you refer to the importance of a trusted reader who will not undermine your best efforts.

    I with you here. I think it's essential and ideally we learn to become our own best readers but when it comes to our own writing it's not easy.

    We write and revise, edit and review, and in time we can become so close to the writing we begin to lose our objectivity, however limited it might be. Hence the need for other readers who can be more impartial.

    As for our reactions to finding someone dead after days, I'm inclined to agree with you here too. Our responses are also important.

    As far as I'm concerned funerals and such like are for the living.

    Thanks, Dusty Who.

  36. It's important, as you say Juliet, to preserve your own perspective and intention as the final judgment and not be swayed by someone else's opinion, however trusted, particularly if that someone might prefer you write the book according to their own personal intentions and desires.

    I've seen this happen in mentoring situations where a mentor might want the writer to write the mentor's book and not their own.

    I'm glad you rescued you book from your friend's overzealous undermining.

    Thanks, Juliet.

  37. I agree, Zuzana, we can over-think death, particularly our own. It's very much the unknown.

    I too re-read some of my blog entries. They can offer a record of our lives over time, but unlike most diaries they get shared. To me that's the joy of them.

    Thanks, Zuzana.

  38. Contemplation of our own extinction is not at all tolerable.
    Darlings should not be murdered, It seems to me. They often express the immediacy so crucial to truth in writing. Refining can be fraught with peril, but often the first outpourings have a truth and validity which later refinements may remove.

  39. I agree with you, Persiflage, often our first outpourings hold the vibrancy and truthfulness and authenticity that can be lost when we pare down.

    You run the risk sometimes in sculpting your writing down till there's almost nothing left at all.

    Thanks, Persiflage.

  40. Such great points in this post, I cannot address them all. I, too, suck at murdering my darlings. And I wonder if it's that idea of excess, in gathering what I don't need, that both displays itself in most of our lives and most of our writing. I wonder if I became a bare-bones minimalist writer if I would indeed become better. But I can't help that it's so hard for me to differentiate between what I want and what I NEED. and then just leave it at that.

    Writers are artists and artists are hoarders. In the end I don't know how many of us will escape that fate.

  41. The artist as hoarder. I had not considered that notion before but I think you're right, Tracy. Hence our difficulties in deciding what to keep and what to throw out. We tend to want it all.

    Thanks, Tracy.

  42. 1; I agree with your husband about the shape of your favourite cup!(must be a 'man' thing.) have looked for wide base, narrow mouth cup for years. None available anywhere. Only problem I can see is washing the inside.
    2: Asylum seekers- Oz in huge on any world map, but foreigners never want to believe that 85% is useless for housing people.Next questionis , how many are REALLY REFUGEES, and how many economic opportunists? Look at how much they are willing to pay to jump the queue. If they are genuine 'reffo's', why do they destroy their documentation before arrival?If all they want is to escape persecution in the country they came from, why do they not settle in the FIRST country where they are NOT? Are they willing to settle in the desert? NOT BLODDY LIKELY!! Mind you, not even most Kooris want to do that, and who can blame them.

  43. Complex issues here, Rob, and prone to generalisations. I'm wary of arguing the point but I think we have to be careful about how we judge those we do not know. A bit of compassion goes a long way.

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