In general...there's no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we're going to die; what's important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.
Claire didn’t know what kind of woman she would be in the face of death. She hadn’t thought about it. It was even an odd consideration, later. I will be strong. I will be the sort of person whom others will marvel at. I will be private.
Anne Lamott was more likely referring to the characteristics one exhibited facing one’s own death. And, more likely, she was using death as a metaphor for crisis or catastrophe, or the “trouble” that the character faces. And in a story it’s not death that’s important, it’s the character’s reaction. Will she be noble? Will she be a mess?
Claire was a writer, one who had dodged real death in stories, substituting instead some other crisis—money, sexual tension, even, as she got more philosophical, the meaning of life, of certain actions one would take. Some of her friends wrote stories where family hovered at bedsides, or consulted anxiously with doctors. A few had near-death experiences, of high risk.
In these stories, the risky people survived to tell the tale. The family dealt with the bravery of the old man or the old woman who had lived a long and meaningful life and spoken something important at the end.
They could all discuss the reality of what had been written.
What happened, though, was that death came to Claire, and Claire had to face it. She didn’t know that facing it showed what kind of woman she was one way or the other. Take today, for instance, a small anniversary of that death. If she were writing about it, or re-creating such an event, she would certainly substitute something other than the golden sky outside her windows, the light tingeing the houses on high hilltops, sun glinting from windows like the spangles on the dance costumes both she and her daughter loved. She wouldn’t use that detail, though, because it didn’t fit the sadness she felt.
In a story she would have her character stand at the window and marvel that the beauty of the sky turning pink and blue and gold was still hers, that the birds’ chirping was comforting, something to truly listen to, and therefore of great value. She would have her character note the majesty of the lighted pillars in the garden across the street, the lights lighting the light of day just breaking, the stillness and silence of a day not quite under way.
In reality hers—Claire’s—was underway and, although she looked out the window at these things, she looked past her daughter’s pictures, and thought two things: Who was she? And why isn’t she here? Mostly she thought, Is it possible, really? Claire’s character wouldn’t mention that she couldn’t bear to look at those pictures, nor bear to remove them, since such wavering would show unsteadiness. People who looked for ready themes would pounce on that: denial. Claire disliked ready themes, exhibiting, at times, another of them: anger.
None of these behaviors was pretty, or of high character.
She’d pour herself another cup of coffee, strong and black and halved with milk, and write what she was trying to understand of life and death.
Anne Lamott. Claire didn’t know anything about Anne Lamott. What had she endured? But a writer didn’t have to endure, first hand. The writer’s job was to imagine.
And imagining, pretending, was the reality that made sense. Claire could pretend to be Claire, for instance. She would be brave because people liked to be with others who were brave, who were gay, who showed strength of character.
The other characters would like Claire better, feel more at ease, if she became a character, and not her true self. They’d like her better if they didn’t truly know the importance of what she was going through; they’d prefer her character to show strength in the face of this.