Why writers must read When Breath Becomes Air
You that seek what life is in death, Now find it air that once was breath. Baron Brooke Fulke Greville,
A young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? in his posthumously published novel, When Breath Becomes Air.
“I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’”
Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and writer. He graduated from Stanford with a B.A. and M.A. in English literature and a B.A. in human biology. He earned an M.Phil in the history and philosophy of science and medicine from Cambridge and graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine, where he was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha national medical honor society. He died in March 2015, while working on this book.
This man was not like you and me. Clearly a genius, or at the very least driven to succeed in ways many of us are not, or as one reviewer said "a privileged person who was singularly driven to the top of his chosen profession." We all should be so driven.
He was equally at home in the world of words and the world of science, which led to some of the following accolades among reviewers:
“Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful...'" ". . .split my head open with its beauty.” A gift to literature. . ."
Kalanithi writes well. Very well. No doubt about it. Better than many people who call themselves writers. Better than many published authors. That being said, he's not Shakespeare. Don't read this book if you want to learn to write better. There are plenty of other (maybe too many other) books for that.
This book makes you ponder the BIG questions. Life. Death. Love. Marriage. Children. What is important? What does it mean to be human and mortal? These are important questions to ponder for all of us who want to live a meaningful life. IF you want to write a meaningful book, you cannot ignore them. But they're also not the reason I think writers should read this book.
Read this book because this man wanted to write it. He wanted to write this book so badly, he wrote it while he was dying. He didn't use imminent death as excuse to stop writing.
As a writer with writerly friends, I've heard and uttered most of the excuses writers have for not writing. Let me elaborate. For example, when I travel, I don't write much or at least as much as I intend to write. That bad habit applies to writing retreats as well as mere vacations. I have all the excuses down pat. "Well, a lot of friends wanted to see me." "I need to talk with my so-and-so." "The chairs were too hard too sit for long." "There's so much going on with the holidays and all." "I may never visit this place again, so I'd better go see <name a site that hadn't been on my list of must-see sites>.
At least I don'ttrot out that tired old tart, "The muse just wasn't visiting me this week."
Let me be perfectly clear. IF I had been facing a terminal disease instead of travel ennui, I'm pretty sure I might have been curled up in a ball and cried instead of working on my novel.
Now, consider this paragraph from the afterward to When Breath Becomes Air, written by Paul's wife Lucy Kalanithi.
During the last year of his life, Paul wrote relentlessly, fueled by purpose, motivated by a ticking clock. He started with midnight bursts when still a neurosurgery chief resident, softly tapping away on his laptop as he lay next to me in bed; later he spent afternoons in his recliner, drafted paragraphs in his oncologist's waiting room, took phone calls from his editor while chemotherapy dripped into his veins, carried his silver laptop everywhere he went. When his fingertips developed painful fissures because of his chemotherapy, we found seamless, silver-lined gloves that allowed use of a trackpad and keyboard. Strategies for retaining the mental focus needed to write, despite the punishing fatigue of progressive cancer, were the focus of his palliative-care appointments. He was determined to keep writing.
I started and finished Breath three days after the death of David Bowie and after watching the Lazarus video. All I could think about for days was these two men show us what it means to be an artist. Nothing. NOTHING, not even imminent death, stops the work. We need to keep that idea in front of us like a beacon carried in the hands of giants. We owe it to ourselves (if not them) to follow their example.
Read this book. Watch this video. Write like tomorrow is uncertain, because it is.