Death and the Writer
by Camille LaGuire
DEATH CAME TO a writer one night and as is usual with writers, the man cried and begged and said;
"Please! Just let me finish this book! It's almost done and it's everything to me."
"That's what they all say," said Death, who wasn't using a cliche, but telling the exact truth. That was what all writers say. He was tired of it.
The writer snatched the first page off the pile on his desk and held it up for Death to see. "Read it," he said. "Read it and see if you don't agree."
Death sighed, but as he reached to knock the paper aside, he happened to read the first sentence, and it was interesting. So he took the paper, and read a little more and thought it really was very interesting. The story had a nice hook to it, and made you want to read more.
But Death wasn't there to read so he dropped the page to go after the writer again, but the writer held out the second page. Which was also very good.
Death sat down and read the entire thing. It was really very very good up until about page 250 or so, when the plot began to falter and seemed to wander aimlessly.
"You see?" said the writer. "It really is a worthy book. I just have to find an ending that's worthy of it. I'm almost there. I've got some hot new ideas for following up on the sailor's story and tying everyone in that way...."
"All right," said Death. "I've never done this before, but I'll give you a few more months."
"Oh, thank you. It'll be done by then."
"If not," said Death ominously, "it will never be done."
* * *At the appointed time, Death returned to find that the author was not done yet. He was not surprised. People are never done with their life's work, especially artists. But he was a little disappointed. It would have been nice if, for once, the claim of artistic necessity had not been just a stall.
Since he had waited this long, though, he read through the manuscript before hauling the writer off to his doom.
And, of course, that it turned out the writer wasn't really stalling. The reason it wasn't done was because the writer had started over, and by golly it was better. It had more direction, and didn't wander off at all.
Death agreed to give the writer more time.
* * *
Some time later, Death showed up again. The writer clutched the manuscript to his chest and cried, "I'm not ready yet!"
"I know," said Death. "I'm early. I just wanted to check on your progress."
Unfortunately the writer had gotten stuck again, but the deadline wasn't up, so Death read through the story.
"Perhaps you should forget about all the bird symbolism," said Death. "It takes the story off course."
"No, no," said the writer. "It's actually reflects what the story is about, but the character doesn't know it."
"Hmmm," said Death, and he asked a few questions, and soon he spent the whole evening discussing the story with the writer, and between the two of them, they came up with a much more ambitious direction for the story, but a great one.
Death felt it was worth letting this one live longer. He was contributing to the betterment of civilization, which he usually only got the chance to do by clearing out the excess population. And that was a dreary way to contribute.
* * *
The story, ambitious as it was now, was very difficult to write, but Death kept giving an extension. This went on for many years.
Unfortunately, the writer's underlying health problems -- the reason Death was at his door in the first place -- only got worse, and he was in pain and getting older and more tired all the time.
So finally one day Death showed up at the writer's door and the writer was happy.
"It's done!" he said. "You can take me now!"
"Hmmm," said Death. He insisted on reading through the manuscript, and he found that the ending was less than stellar. "It is NOT done," said Death.
"Yes it is!" insisted the writer. "It's the best I can do. You can take me now."
"No, this ending is just tacked on to get it over with. I gave you all this time so you would write a brilliant book. It requires a brilliant ending. Finish it!"
"I won't!" said the writer. "I'm too old and sick and I'm done. If you don't take me, I'll kill myself. That's what I'll do."
"You cannot die if I don't take you," said Death.
"Well, what do you want done with it, then?" said the writer.
And Death sat down and they hammered out a better ending. Rather than leave, though, Death stuck around and made sure the writer worked on it. He paced the floor and when the writer was stuck, they threw ideas back and forth and eventually came up with the ideal ending.
Soon the book was perfect, and Death took the writer from life, both of them relieved to be done.
* * *
Ah, but it wasn't done. Since the writer was not there to sell the story to a publisher, Death haunted the man's apartment, invisible to all.
The landlady came in and snorted in disgust and began to throw things away. She picked up the manuscript and glanced at it, but only snorted again and threw it in the trash.
She promptly died of a heart attack.
Death put the manuscript back on the desk.
The landlady's nephews came to take over her property, and they hired a company to clear out everything in the apartment, without even looking at it.
Rather than wipe out the entire cleaning company, Death quietly took the manuscript and left. He'd just leave it on an acquisition editor's desk.
But the unfortunate editor noted that it had not been logged through the regular submission system, and had no return postage, and it was over 1000 pages long. He went out and fired his assistant and threw the manuscript in the recycling bin.
That editor died in a terrible accident that night, and Death retrieved the manuscript from the bin and went on to the next publishing house.
After the demise of three editors, one of whom did include a nice rejection slip, and four agents, Death realized that he wasn't doing the publishing world any good, except perhaps for the agent who had charged a large reading fee and then tried to sell him on some expensive editorial services. Death was simply not cut out for the process of selling a novel.
He considered blackmailing another writer into taking credit for it, but it wouldn't work if the person didn't have right kind of talent, and the voice had to match. And a truly great writer would have integrity. Death didn't want a hack to get credit for this novel. He needed someone who would treasure that novel as a work of great art -- support it out of love, not out of greed or fear.
Then one day Death was came across one of those dogs -- the ones that make the newspapers for being so loyal in death as they were in life. The little mutt mourned and whined away at his master's grave. That little dog would do anything for its master, and Death wished he could find someone that devoted to his manuscript.
And that's when it struck Death what the solution would be.
It was only a few months later that the news broke. One of the great poets of the age had died, a woman of great voice and strength, a Nobel laureate, struck down by a long illness at last after 98 years. And lo and behold, in her files was an unpublished novel. She'd always been a poet, who knew she could write such brilliant fiction?
The poet, of course, was beloved of many, but no one was more devoted than her granddaughter, who took it as her life's work was to see that the novel was not only well-published, but that its vision was well-protected from the vagaries of Hollywood and inane academics.
She lived an amazingly long life.
Tomorrow a few words on the writing of this story.
See you in the funny papers