grief, Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, memoir, Patricia Hampl, Scott Simon, Will Schwalbe, writing
Perhaps you’ve heard of NPR’s Scott Simon this week—he’s getting a lot of attention for tweeting his thoughts and observations as he sits at his mother’s deathbed.
As with any public figure’s actions, Simon is getting both praise and criticism. I read through the negative comments posted to the Los Angeles Times article—here’s a sample:
- “That is just creepy”
- “Ratings must have been down”
- “This guy needs to seek mental help”
- “Can’t even someone’s dying days be afforded some dignity?”
- “Ghoulish. Disrespectful. Selfish.”
- “Rather he used his Mother to garner favor and a story as well as pity.”
But what Simon is doing is not new—only the vehicle for expressing his thoughts is new. Books and essays, thousands of times over, have been written about a loved one’s death, and I hear little similar criticism leveled against that type of writing. So apparently the thing that is making people mad is the fact that Simon is publishing his thoughts live, as they happen in the moment. If he were to write a book or essay, likely he would use the same thoughts, but he’d have more time to shape them and expand upon them.
So my next conclusion is that there must be some unwritten societal guideline he’s violating that is upsetting people. Do we need to wait a certain amount of time before publicly writing about death? And if so, how long is the wait? As soon as the body is in the ground? A week later? A month later? Six months? A year? Five years? We’re used to these thoughts taking time. Joan Didion’s husband died at the end of 2003, and The Year of Magical Thinking was published in early 2007, about three years later. Joyce Carol Oates’ husband died in 2008 and her book, A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, came out in 2012. Will Schwalbe waited a few years before publishing The End of Your Life Book Club in 2013. The loved ones of these authors died before social media—perhaps their stories would have taken a different form had Twitter existed.
You’re going to get something different from writing in the moment it’s happening than if you wait and reflect. Anyone who keeps a diary and then reads back upon it knows that. Through Twitter, Scott Simon is providing a diary, a steady stream of reportage which he’s used to doing for his job. Are people upset that he’s violating the secret nature of a diary, something that we used to lock with a little key?
Some commenters don’t like how he inserted himself into the story. “The reason it’s better to do stories about others and not oneself is that a reporter then has a better chance of presenting an honest picture of what they’re reporting on, contradictions and all,” one person says. This seems to say it would be OK if he was tweeting from a stranger’s deathbed. Would that be more acceptable?
I think Simon is doing what comes naturally to him. In the days before social media, he probably would have kept a journal or jotted down notes and ideas. He probably would have written down, or recorded on audio, his thoughts and his conversations with his mom.
This all reminds me of Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter. Hampl begins the book in the hospital room where her mother is dying. She sits on a cot next to her mother. “I’m perched on the edge, barely hoisted above the floor, a supplicant crouched below the elevated royal bed. I gaze up at the tiny body, the porcelain face. There’s a yellow legal pad on my lap. I’m a notetaker from long habit” (p. 4). I’m a notetaker, too. My dad died in 1990, and my book was published in 2013. Yet I was jotting down notes and thoughts in the months after he died. Since it was 1990, I had no venue to publish them, but would I had I had the chance? Not sure, but maybe.
Hampl and Simon are doing the exact same thing—taking notes at a dying mother’s bedside. The only difference: Simon is publishing his thoughts as they happen, while Hampl waited years. Is one better than the other? Is Simon violating some societal guideline regarding death and grief? And if so, is it time to throw old-fashioned guidelines out the window?
I think we need both–both the live report and the memoir that comes years later. All of these perspectives will only help us better understand what it means to be human during times of grief and loss.
Lisa Simons said:
What an interesting and thought-provoking conversation.
It does bring up a lot of questions.
Paula Mine said:
I didn’t realize there was any backlash. I have a Twitter acct, but I don’t really use it, so when I heard on NPR yesterday that Scott’s mother had died, I went to my acct. to try to find his Facebook page, which he also has. His was one of the few Twitter accounts I ‘follow’. I just wanted to leave a condolence message. I have been informed and entertained by Scott’s wonderful wit and voice for a while now.. and his heartfelt discussion about his mother’s death on the radio yesterday just moved me to say something. I agree with what you’ve written here… and I have to add that I think because it is death, people are uncomfortable with it.. that and the obvious open grief that is expressed. Too bad for them. I was moved to tears.. in a good way. 🙂
There is something about open emotion that does tend to make others uncomfortable. It’s like we’re all expected to stay all buttoned up and stone-faced. Scott Simon was not, and while that appealed to some people, it did not appeal to all.
I read and listened to Scott’s posts and found them poignant and touching. He’s a journalist, journaling what he experiences. We should learn from his words and find the connection to us all that he expresses. When my son was killed in a car accident, I blogged about it, the shock, grief, anger, loss, pain…all of it. For some of us, writing (or reporting) is how we deal, and how we reach out to others for support and comfort. I have no doubt his mother would have loved every moment of it, just as I am sure he would not have shared this time publicly if he had any idea she would be unhappy about it.
Good point. I would imagine Scott Simon was always the kid walking around with a notebook, constantly writing and journaling and observing, and his mother knew that. I agree that it’s instinctual for some people–what you did after your son’s death, what I did after my dad died, what Simon did during his mother’s last days (and I’m sure he will continue to write about it).
Elizabeth Gaucher said:
Reblogged this on Esse Diem and commented:
I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t begrudge him his choice. Everyone deals with death in his or her own way. I hope he doesn’t regret this. It begs the question, is it best to wait to write about grief, or is the moment the truest time?
The question I asked when I first heard this story was: Did he have her permission?
I’m not sure why I feel that’s an important thing to ask but it is something that I’ve thought about. Also, having sat at my child’s bedside at death, I cannot imagine the world outside that room. I cannot imagine my heart and my head being anywhere but entirely engaged with her in her last moments. When I think of Scott Simon tweeting during his mother’s last moments, I can’t help but ponder the things he might have said to her instead. That’s why the article got a rise out of me.
Permission is an issue that often comes up when writing anything personal. Legally permission is not needed, but is it an ethical and moral responsibility a writer has to let people know they are going to be written about?
I’m sorry to hear of your daughter’s death. Some of the comments I read on the LA Times regarding the Simon story reflected what you are saying–was he totally present in the room with his mother during this time?
Yes. And being totally present with your loved one at the end of their life is really the only thing you can give them at that point. It gives back, too, and is a mutually-shared experience. Sometimes it’s all I can grab on to in retrospect.
I wonder, then, if Simon used the technology as a way to “avert his eyes” from his new reality and, in turn, avoid the permanence of death that is being debated as a result of tweeting. That would be ironic.
Tracy Lee Karner said:
People have a right to their opinions, I’m sure. Does anyone of us actually believe that people don’t have a right to their opinions?
Perhaps the most critical question we could be asking (about all our conflicts of opinion) is, “What is the best decent, humane, honest and yet compassionate way for us to express our varying opinions?”
There will always be people who feel compelled to publicly voice their condemnation of others’ actions. Perhaps this is just another form of self-validation, just as journaling, diary-keeping, and publishing our thoughts is.
I wonder what would happen if we all were astutely aware of the motives behind our expression. What are we trying to accomplish–war or peace? (Because doesn’t it come down to that, with everything we think/say about another person, aren’t we are ultimately building bridges toward greater mutual understanding or tearing them down?)
My opinion is that it is rarely possible to make real “art” from our experiences without putting psychic/emotional and time/physical distance between the event and our expression of it. So I wouldn’t classify “note-taking” as art-making, in the same way that a memoir, essay, poem, novel would be art-making.
But I doubt that Simon is trying to make art right now. I think he’s probably talking to himself and to anyone else who wants to eavesdrop. I imagine he’s hoping that the motive of the eavesdropper is to build up understanding of what to suffer loss and grief as a human, to find an expression of that experience which validates our humanity with the knowledge that we have the capacity for a more nuanced expression than a beast-like howl, whimper or gnashing of teeth. And because we have the capacity of language, we use words.
It’s my opinion that if people believe Simon has no right to use language to express his grief, shock, fear, confusion, they should be consistent and also refrain from using language to express their own outrage, disdain, shock, fear, confusion.
I agree that comments can either build people up (peace) or tear people down (war). It would be nice if everyone elected for the former.
I’m intrigued by the idea of how long one must wait before making art out of an experience. What is the difference between journaling and “writing”? What Simon was doing does seem to be a way to simply reach out and connect with others–“here’s what I’m going through, maybe some of you will empathize.” Or if someone hadn’t been through that, then he’s taking on the role of educator.
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