13 February 2018

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

This is going to be a rather morbid post, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for some time. It also might be a little bit unfocused as there’s so many things going round my head on this subject, but I think the main points will come across.

Lately, I’ve been noticing on Facebook a lot of people being sick to one degree or another and even some who’ve passed on. This has been happening since I joined FB but it seems like there’s more lately and that it’s happening more frequently. As I was thinking about this, I’ve also seen posts from other people who’ve noticed the same thing. Maybe it’s because we have more FB friends, maybe it’s because that’s just life or people are getting older? Either way, every time I see these messages—and even the ones about people’s pets—I get a pang of sadness. On the one hand, it’s part of life, still, on the other it hurts to see so many people going gently—or otherwise—into that good night.

It gives me pause. Maybe because my world is so much bigger, in some ways, thanks to FB. Therefore, I see more of this than I would in pre-FB days. I’ve had friends and relatives die since I was a little kid, of course. Some well before their time, either because of “natural” causes or war or in the case of my birth father, from being hit by a drunk driver. Somehow he made it through World War II, but not the mean streets of L.A.

So I wanted to talk a little about writers and recognition, both in our lifetimes and beyond: mortality and immortality. It’s an uncomfortable subject, maybe one of those that we don’t like to talk about in “polite” company, but maybe one that we think about on occasion.

We write for various reasons. To get our point of view out there, to entertain, to get fame and recognition, maybe even a little money...very little money 😉. And it might seem vain, but I think we also write because many of us would like that little chunk of immortality that leaving behind our words gives us. We want to think that in a hundred years or a thousand someone searching some “dusty” silicon chips (or whatever the current medium is) for a bit of nostalgia or a glimpse of how the world used to be might stumble upon our words. And just for that little moment in time we might live again. Of course, we also want to be recognized while we’re here—wouldn’t that be nice?

Some people say that writing in itself is its own reward—maybe, or to an extent. But, speaking for myself, while I enjoy the writing, creating stories, characters, settings, plots and putting it all together like a jigsaw puzzle, if no one else read it it would be like the sound of that famous tree falling in the forest—with no one there to hear it. So, aren’t we really writing for others—whether today or for posterity? Otherwise why share our work with anyone else? Writing for yourself is like eating a pizza by yourself (or watching a movie, playing cards or a game), it’s definitely enjoyable, but it’s often more fun to do with someone else. And if we’re writing for others our work can live on even if we can’t.

In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare, whoever he was in reality, said…

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

…referring to his poem living on, making him immortal.

Does everyone think or hope they’ll be the next Jane Austen or Charles Dickens—or even Dan Brown? Did any of these people think they’d be remembered a hundred or more years later—maybe, or maybe not. They, probably like a lot of writers, just felt compelled to write—but maybe with one eye toward some type of immortality. For some of us, writing is like breathing. But are we really writing for a tiny audience of our wives, husbands and mothers? I don’t think so.

Jane Austen

Most people want to leave a mark—hopefully for something good or at worst neutral, though some prefer being known for their evil deeds (which gives us fodder to write about). Nobody wants to be ignored or forgotten. To some that means leaving children to carry on the family legacy and name, to others curing cancer, and yet to others leaving a piece of writing that will endure. But after a generation or two even our great grandchildren don’t really know us either, but our readers do.

If we don’t care about these things, both being known in our lifetimes and beyond, why do we get upset when our work is rejected, when we can’t get agents, etc.? Sure, part of it is ego, no one likes being rejected. But maybe part of it is also losing another shot at a little piece of immortality.

At some points in our lives, particularly when we’re younger, I think we don’t see the possibility of not being here anymore. We know it happens intellectually, but we don’t like to think about it. Which brings to mind these lines from Flowers Never Bend in the Rainfall, by Paul Simon:

So I'll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend with the rainfall.

And that also brings me to one of my favorite songs about mortality:

There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

So, do it while you’re here, do it now and don’t put it off ’cause you never know what will happen. And hopefully it will last. And, like Dylan Thomas said, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.


And now for a little BSP that will hopefully help me on the road to immortality: Mind Blowing News: My story “Windward” from Coast to Coast: Privates Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (edited by Andrew McAleer and Me, published by Down & Out Books) has been selected for the 2018 Best American Mystery Stories edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler. It will be out in the fall. To say I’m blown away is an understatement. Also selected for Best American Mysteries from this collection is John Floyd’s “Gun Work,” and Art Taylor’s “A Necessary Ingredient” has been nominated for an Agatha. Not a bad batting average for one book 😁.

And a shoutout to SleuthSayers Michael Bracken and David Edgerly Gates, who also have stories in the Best American Mysteries, and Barb Goffman on her Agatha Nom. SleuthSayers is cleaning up!


Also, my Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down and Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. Here is the new cover reveal:

Also, there’s a fun and interesting article on Alfred Hitchcock in the Washington Post (and other places) from Associated Press writer Hillel Italie: Alfred Hitchcock Remains an Influence on Crime Writers. It includes quotes from Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Mike Mallory, SJ Rozan, A.J. Finn, Otto Penzler.......and even me! Enjoy!



  1. You have reason to be pleased both as writer and editor!

    And nice to see your novel reissued, too. Congratulations.

  2. Last September I turned 60. My father, his father, and my mother's father did not survive their 50s. When I had quadruple bypass surgery in 2008, just after I turned 51, I had every reason to believe I would follow in their footsteps. I didn't, and I know that every day since then has been a gift I try not to waste. All the big plans I had were chucked out the window. Instead, I have only one goal: to be happy. The funny thing is, by doing what makes me happy and surrounding myself with people who make me happy, I have accomplished many of the things I once sweated and fretted over, and I appreciate them even more.

  3. Paul, good piece. I assume you didn't know when you wrote this that the great Bill Crider passed away yesterday. Makes your piece all the more appropriate.

    I believe Woody Allen said "I don't want to achieve immortality through my writing. I want to achieve it by not dying." But we settle for what we can get.

  4. Thanks, Janice. I keep trying, like we all do :-) .

  5. That’s a great story and great lesson, Michael. I think we often don’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak. And it’s a good goal to be happy, but sometimes hard to achieve for a variety of reasons. I know the times I’m most content are the simplest of times, when I’m just sitting with my wife and animals and reading or watching a movie or just talking.

  6. Thanks, Rob. When I wrote the piece I knew Bill was very ill, but he hadn’t yet passed away. But I have to be honest, he was on my mind a lot in the writing of this piece and I had debated whether or not to mention him by name but thought it better to keep it more general.

    And I love that Woody Allen quote! But, as you say, we settle for what we can get :-) .

  7. First off, congratulations to our amazing SleuthSayers, that includes Barb Goffman (Agatha Nom!!! Woo-hoo!), and you, Paul, Art Taylor, John Floyd, David Edgerly Gates, and Michael Bracken in the 2018 Best American Mystery Stories! Huzzah!

    Secondly, I write for two reasons - for the money (hah!) and the glory (hmm...)

    No, seriously, I write fiction because it's what I do, whether or not I get published, although I am very, very, VERY happy every time I do get published, believe me.

    But I also keep a journal, which I've been keeping now since the early 1970s - and that one, is for some reader (hopefully) a couple of hundred years down the road, looking to see a slice of life on this planet. I have hopes that - who knows? - someday someone might read mine as people read Samuel Pepys or Parson James Woodforde or Nella Last.

  8. Thought-provoking post, Paul.

    I don't even know why I write anymore. I've always enjoyed it, even when it wasn't going well, which was most of the time, but now it's like breathing or coffee. I don't know if I could give it up.

    Maybe I do it for those few moments when it all works.

    Congratulations on the BAMS selection (along with fellow Sleuthsayers) and your re-issue.

  9. Thanks, Eve. And hopefully you will be the Samuel Pepys of this generation! :-)

  10. Thanks, Steve. And I think it is something we have to do, the question is do we do it simply for ourselves?

    And since Rob brought up a Woody Allen quote, here’s another one that might be apropos vis a vis writing:

    "'Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don't you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y'know, they're totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and... but, uh, I guess we keep goin' through it because, uh, most of us... need the eggs.”

  11. Hi, Paul — You said my post gave you a lot to think about, and now you've returned the favor. A lot to process here, and as Rob already made reference to himself, this arrived in my feedly side-by-side with the news that Bill Crider had died, so.... an extra layer of poignancy.

    Honestly I can hardly imagine that my work will be read decades from now. I think it's just the way that this works in most cases, that only a small portion of writers achieve any kind of immortality through their works--even the most popular ones who sometimes fade into obscurity pretty quickly. I just randomly looked at the bestselling novels of 1939, and you've got Grapes of Wrath and Rebecca there--still widely read today, of course--but how about some of the others? All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field? Escape by Ethel Vance? Disputed Passage by Lloyd Douglas?

    So that said, why write at all? Well.... that's the thing I'd need to think about to articulate better, though you've hit on several things here already.

    In short, thanks for the thoughtful, provocative post.

  12. Sadness first thing in the morning when people here are yelling, "Happy Mardi Gras!" It is a good sadness, brings us back to life and the living and the dying. Nicely written, Paul. The comments are excellent as well and I, like Micheal, had cardic bypass surgery in my 50s. It made me pause and then spurred me on and I've been writing in a frenzy for years now. Will they read us when we're gone? Who knows. Like many of you, I like to think someone will stumble on my work a century from now and I'll touch them, make they feel something. I'm reminded at times like this what's written on F. Scott Fitzgerald's tombstone. It's the last line of THE GREAT GATSBY: "Se we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

    Keep looking through my writing for a memorable line to put on my tombstone. Nothing yet. But I'm still writing.

  13. Nicely done, and so true.

    We all dream that our words will give us some tiny bit of immortality. Our words will be here long after flower gardens have faded and buildings have crumbled.

    Do I expect any of my words to last? Not really. But I can dream, can't I?

  14. Well deserved congratulations, Paul, and applause to Art, Barb, David, John, AND Michael!

    A happier take on When I'm Gone…

  15. Not long ago (Was it on SleuthSayers?) I read a person dies three deaths:
    1. the day their heart stops,
    2. the day they're interred,
    3. the last day someone remembers them.

    The Moving Finger writes and having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
    ☞ quatrain 51, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

  16. Leigh, your comment is one I'm going to copy and remember. (The Omar K quote too.)

    Paul, major congrats re BAMS! You've made me think, with your post. Wouldn't it be lovely, to have readers enjoy our fictional worlds and characters down the road.

    Actually, the way things are going, I'll be happy if people are still reading books by the time I die.

  17. A fine column, Paul. And congratulations on all your recent successes!

  18. Immortality isn't hard. That's why God created self-publishing. Now no one has to be at the mercy of that one lone agent or editor who had a bad day the one day they were reading your submission and who tossed it in the trash. All writers need do is write. Talking about writing that book and not putting those words on paper is one sure way to be forgotten. But getting it out there can be done. It takes work (Sorry for that four-letter word.)but it can be done. Write on.

  19. Hi, Paul and everyone.

    I'd like my work to stand the test of time, but I have no way of knowing that it will. I only know that if I refrain from writing, wondering whether it will endure, I'll have less writing about which to ask that question. :)

  20. Til Death when we're joined. Is it oblivion or Elysium?

  21. I think this poem by Rhina Espaillat approaches the question both truthfully, reasonably, and with humility:


  22. I think we all ask ourselves at one time or other why we want and need to write. The answers are complex as you suggest. Congrats on the reissuing of your novel.

  23. Hi Art,

    Glad to return the favor ;-) . And yes and unfortunately, the news about Bill Crider does seem to add another level of poignancy.

    As to whether your work or mine, or anyone’s, will be read decades from now: Well, maybe not. But as Robert Petyo says below, “Do I expect any of my words to last? Not really. But I can dream, can't I?” and I think that’s where a lot of us are coming from.

  24. Thanks, O’Neil. And I can understand how your bypass surgery would give you that zest. I haven’t had that, but I have had things that have helped put things into perspective. But what I find is that after a time of appreciating life more I settle back into my normal routine of who I am. That’s a great quote from F. Scott. And now you need to come up with something in your next book that you can put on your tombstone ;-) .

  25. Thanks, Robert. And I think what you said hits the nail on the head perfectly: “Do I expect any of my words to last? Not really. But I can dream, can't I?”

  26. Thanks, Leigh. And for the link to the song, but that’s a very different song. Though I do like the Cups song a lot in all the many, many versions I’ve seen of it. And I hadn’t seen that one.

    And I like the three deaths saying you mention. Number three is especially poignant. And true.

  27. Thanks, Melodie. And you made me laugh about wondering if people will still be reading your books by the time you’re gone from this mortal coil. It’s so true. But I refer you to Robert Petyo’s line, which to me sums everything pretty well: “Do I expect any of my words to last? Not really. But I can dream, can't I?”

  28. Thanks, John. And congratulations to you, too!

  29. I love your solution to immortality, Gayle. Perfect.

  30. Good points, Gerald. We just have to keep at it and to paraphrase a well-known phrase, maybe something will stick…..or stick around.

  31. Thanks for that link and poem, Johnny Longfellow. I wasn’t familiar with it, but it’s a good one.

  32. Thanks, Jacqueline. And the answers are complex and maybe to some degree unknowable.

  33. You certainly struck a nerve with this one, Paul. Like you, mortality has been on my mind a good deal; obviously on the minds of others, as well, going by your responses. I picked an appropriate day to read this, as it's Ash Wednesday, when Catholics are reminded how fleeting life can be. I seldom need reminders however. It is always before me. As to my writing being remembered and read after I'm gone, I have little confidence. Still, writing helps me to deal with such issues on a personal level, as well as many others. As for death, oddly, I'm not afraid of it. I'd prefer no pain however. Great piece and thanks for sharing it.

    Hats off to all our "Besties" and nominees! Well done!

  34. Catching up on posts. This was a good one, Paul. I enjoy writing, but I also enjoy being read. I've said before that I write for the reaction. If no one will read my words, it feels like a waste of my time to write them. It's why I don't keep a journal or diary.

    Anyway, thanks to you, Eve, Leigh, and anyone else I might have missed about my Agatha nom. I'm still smiling.

  35. Thanks for your thoughts, David. I guess at some point we all have mortality on our minds, especially the older we get. But I would also think that as a police officer it would be even more on your mind on a day to day basis. And I agree, no pain.

  36. Thanks, Barb. And I’m with you, if we’re not writing for at least someone to read our words I think we’re missing out on something. And keep smiling and good luck on the Agatha.


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