I’m writing a novel set in the afterlife.
I got passionately, avidly interested in the afterlife after my boyfriend died in 1991. Grief can make you nuts and my interest in the afterlife at that time was probably a little nuts. But it was also grounded in my solid sense that a whole person cannot just become nothing like a machine that’s been turned off, that a person must be more than a machine-like body. I read everything I could find about the afterlife and I asked everyone I spent time with whether they believed in life after death. Some people said they had never thought about that and made it clear they weren’t going to think about it now. At least one person said he saw no point in thinking about it, since there was no way you could know whether there was or wasn’t an afterlife. My favorite answer came from my dead fiancé’s mechanic, a fat funny down-to-earth guy with a slight southeastern-Iowa accent: When I asked him whether he believed in life after death, he said, “Up to a point.”
I knew exactly what he meant. Until my boyfriend died, I believed in it up to a point too—that is to say, sort of, but not really. I hadn’t thought about it enough to get to really. But after the suicide of my boyfriend, someone I couldn’t let go of and couldn’t live without, believing in the afterlife up to a point didn’t work for me anymore. I wanted to know about it in the real way you know about real things: Did it exist? Did this boyfriend I couldn’t live without go somewhere and if so where and what was it like there, what was he doing there? So I set about trying to find answers those questions. I went where I always went back then to look for answers to all my questions and solutions to all my problems: the library.
It isn’t true that the afterlife is something you can’t know anything about. There are all kinds of accounts of the afterlife lining the shelves of the library. I know because I’ve read them all. You might not think they’re legitimate, the sources may seem questionable: Is it really possible that some medium channeled this book-length message from some dead person? Is this psychic who reportedly has a 95-percent accuracy rate the real thing? Is this research by Raymond Moody about near death experiences something to be taken seriously? I, of course, wanted to take it seriously, and it seemed to me that anyone who read those books with an open mind would, maybe not the channeled descriptions but surely the Raymond Moody research, the accounts of psychics whose messages put their fingers so squarely on facts about the still-living people consulting them—things that could only be known by the dead person sending messages through the psychic—it was hard not to believe there was something to it. I still feel that way, although I’m a little embarrassed to admit it.
Maybe that’s why nobody wants to go there—the embarrassment. There’s so much cultural and religious baggage attached to the afterlife, so many ideas that have been floating around for generations and currently in the movies and popular culture—heaven and hell, angels, pearly gates—it’s tempting to dismiss the whole thing, throw the baby out with the bathwater. And if you say you’re interested in the afterlife it automatically seems to other people like you believe in, are even endorsing and promoting, all those cultural-baggage things. I myself think that the afterlife is just another piece of regular life, that its existence could be explained through contemporary physics if the scientists weren’t too embarrassed to spend their time researching it.
I still sometimes read stuff about the afterlife, anything that seems to say something new or that particularly catches my interest, but my obsession with it has mostly gone into remission. Nevertheless, my earlier foray into inquiry left me with an unwavering belief that it definitely exists (and, I have to admit, exasperation when people take for granted that it doesn’t exist, that it might be okay to kind of believe in it but it’s silly to really believe it). And when I was looking for a writing project and decided to write a novel after years of writing memoir, I decided to set my novel in the afterlife. It started with a single sentence I had been carrying around in my mind for years.
The Light in This Place
A few years ago my friend Mary Beth, who lives in Milwaukee, said to me on the phone, “I’m not getting any writing done.”
“I’m not either,” I said.
It was the year I broke my shoulder and I had been sitting in a chair watching episodes of Downton Abbey and trying to cope with the discomfort of the injury and having my shoulder trapped in a brace, for four months. Mary Beth is one of my fast-writing partners—that is to say, she and I generate new material by writing as fast as we can for a short period of time, together, in a certain way. I felt vaguely responsible for Mary Beth not getting any writing done because we hadn’t been fast writing since February and now it was May. I said, “Let me think about it,” and the next day I came up with the idea to do twelve minutes of fast writing every day on the weekdays.
I wasn’t immersed in any project and I didn’t know what to write about so I decided to start with a sentence I had been carrying around in my head for about six years. The sentence was: The light in this place reminds me of the light at the end of those late spring days in Iowa.
I’ve always thought there was something mysterious about the light at the end of the day, something numinous and transcendent, and I was thinking about that one day when I was out walking at the end of the day and I started thinking idly that the afterlife might be a place where there’s numinous light like that. Or that maybe the reason we love that light so much is that it reminds us obscurely of that other world we’ve come from.
So I wrote down that sentence during the first twelve-minute fast writing session with Mary Beth, hearing it being spoken by someone in the afterlife. I added to the sentence later, trying to describe the light, and then I some added some more sentences trying to describe the light even more, trying to get at the sense I got from the light, a sense of something inexplicable, some indefinable magic lingering around the edges. After that Mary Beth and I kept writing for twelve minutes at a time on most weekdays. And that was how I came to be writing a novel set in the afterlife.
Writing Fiction, Writing Memoir
Almost every time I tell someone I’m writing a novel set in the afterlife, they laugh. As if the afterlife is a joke, or as if stories about the afterlife are automatically funny. I guess it makes sense, given our cultural history with the idea of the afterlife. But I wanted to write a regular literary novel and just set it in the afterlife.
For me the challenge wasn’t writing a novel set there, it was writing a novel at all. It’s been a long time since I’ve written fiction.
I got an MFA in fiction-writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1980s and I wrote some short stories back then, a few of which got published in decent literary magazines. But I didn’t know how, or learn anything about how from the Workshop, really, to write fiction. I was one of those writers who couldn’t make up a story. I based all my stories on my own experience, and those experiences didn’t transform into finished pieces that had elegance and meaning and became that mysterious thing, fiction. Fiction that worked, as we said in the Workshop.
When something happened to me that was so shattering it eclipsed every single part of my reality—when my boyfriend killed himself in 1991—I knew I had to write about it, and I tried writing it as fiction. I wrote two short stories, and I sent one of them to an old friend who was teaching fiction in an MFA program in another part of the country. I sent it to her as a way to tell her what had happened to me, because I didn’t have the energy to tell her about it in any other way, and instead of reading it that way she critiqued it like a writing teacher. That experience was so awful I gave up on writing about the suicide as fiction. Then my friend Jo Ann Beard started writing creative nonfiction and I started writing it too, with her, as little exercises. And then I had one of the biggest ah ha moments of my life: I decided to write the story of my fiance’s suicide as a memoir. That was back when people were kind of rediscovering the memoir, at the beginning of what would come to be called the golden age of the literary memoir, in the 1990s.
I found that I was really good at writing memoir. I couldn’t make up a story but I could turn events that had happened to me into a story; I could make them compelling and engaging. And my memoir, The Rooms of Heaven, was published by a major publisher and I got a bunch of money for it. I spent longer than I care to say writing a memoir about my childhood that didn’t sell and I’ve been writing personal essays for years, turning everyday events into little memoirs; my collection of those, The Deep Limitless Air, will be published in May of this year. I thought I was probably never going to write fiction again.
I’ll never stop writing personal essays, but there are only so many book-length memoirs you can write, and when I wrote that first sentence, The light in this place reminds me of those long spring days in Iowa, and then turned it into a paragraph, I decided to just keep going and see if I could write a novel. And I found that I had kind of learned how to write a novel, in the time between the last time I wrote fiction and now. I had learned it in some magical way that partly had to do with reading many, many novels—I have a weakness for well-written mystery novels, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit—and was partly a result of teaching other people how to write novels, as a writing coach. That is to say, I had learned how to tell a story, and I had learned that writing a novel has to be first and foremost about telling a story, no matter how literary the novel is.
It was hard to come up with a story in my novel about the afterlife. But I think I’ve done it.
Plot in the Afterlife
I’ve learned that the way to create a plot is to pose a question in some artful way toward the beginning of the story and answer that question over the course of the story. I’m talking about a what-happened question, a narrative question, not a psychological question like how or when or why did a certain character change or what is a certain setting like. The narrative question might be the least profound and important part of the story but it’s what holds it all together, like the string the crystals cluster around in rock candy.
The reader will keep reading to know the answer to the question. In mysteries the narrative question is usually who killed the dead guy and how is the investigator going to figure that out, and in thrillers the narrative question is often are they going to catch the psychopath before he kills the main character. With other kinds of novels the narrative question is probably subtler but it’s still there, or should be there, I guess—this is what I tell my coaching clients. It’s something that gives the story forward moving, keeps the reader reading, keeps the story from being static—variations of the same thing happening over and over—or all over the place. And it helps you, the writer, know where you’re going, where to go next, as you write.
I knew I had to find some narrative question to make my afterlife novel work, but I was confused about what that could be. And I’m not very good at creating narrative questions in fictions, although I can do it pretty easily when I’m writing about my own life in a memoir. I’m about to publish a collection of short pieces and when I looked at that I saw that every single one of those personal essays poses and answers a little or not so little question. Like how was I going to (how did I) get those bees in the hive when my scary mother was in the house, or how did I manage to fly to New York and give a speech when I had a phobia of flying and a phobia of public speaking, or what did I do when I got stuck overnight in the Denver Airport.
Asking and answering questions is something I seem to do naturally, without thinking about it, when I’m writing about things that happened to me, maybe because life itself unfolds in a series of questions and answers if you stop long enough to notice it through writing. But when it comes to fiction, narrative questions don’t seem to come to me naturally. And it was even harder to come up with a narrative question, a problem that could be solved over the course of the narrative, in my afterlife novel, because what kind of problems could they have in the afterlife.
The afterlife itself poses its own question: What is it like there? (Assuming there is a there there, which I do, of course, in this novel, and actually do in regular life too, see my earlier posts.) What are the conditions? What do people do there, assuming they do things? (You can’t write a novel where people aren’t doing things, right?) Partly I wanted to write this novel to answer my own questions, which had been floating around in my mind since my deeply loved boyfriend killed himself, thirty years ago now (I can’t believe it’s been thirty years): Where is he now? What is it like there? And, the most burning question to me, what is he doing?
So partly this novel has been about trying to answer those questions. I wanted to imagine life as it takes place in the afterlife, assuming there is an afterlife. But I still had to come up with a narrative question, and that was harder (and the other part, imagining life in the afterlife, wasn’t easy, more about that later). In the end I came up with a plot involving a young dead woman who was shrouded in a kind of mystery. All the other characters in the story are involved in solving that mystery. Even I was involved in solving that mystery. I didn’t know the answer to my own narrative question when I started or for most of the way into the writing of the book.