Greenwood to speak on finding purpose in writing about death



David Valdes Greenwood, the Chautauqua Writers’ Center prose writer-in-residence, has been known to write either the funniest tragedy or the saddest comedy, depending on how a reader looks at it.

“I do like an intersection of things,” he said. “What I’ve come down to is, they are all ways of having a conversation with the world that I want to have … I like the idea that whatever you do doesn’t so much answer one question as just lead a discussion, raise questions, bring ideas out.”

Greenwood cannot be pinned to one mood or one genre of writing. In addition to his tragicomedies, Greenwood has also published three nonfiction books and writes about same-sex marriage and parenthood for The Huffington Post. He is currently working on his first piece of fiction.

Happiness is not unique to a single form of writing, and neither is tragedy — though the latter may be arguably more difficult to translate on paper. Greenwood will explore this phenomenon in a Brown Bag lecture at 12:15 p.m. today on the porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall, titled “Whose Death is it Anyway? Writing About the End of Life.”

Greenwood’s mother died this past spring. He managed her care and spent the last few days with her in the hospital.

“I found myself writing about it almost instantly,” he said, “but then also thinking a lot about, ‘Well, what is the purpose of this writing? Is this writing for me? Is this writing a tribute for her? Is this writing for other people who will go through this experience?’ ”

Although he has done plenty of writing in reflection of his mother’s death, Greenwood said he has not yet found its purpose — what shape it will take, if any, and how he will share it, if he ever will.

One of his recent plays was based on a shooting he witnessed many years ago. It took him two years to begin writing about the traumatic event and five years to begin circulating drafts of the play to readers.

Greenwood said that every play has a built-in fictional component — a distance between the playwright and the action onstage. Although the events in his play are based on reality, many of its characters are fictional composites of real people.

The play is ultimately a work of fiction, as Greenwood didn’t feel he had the permission to speak directly about the lives of the other people involved with the shooting. But writing about his experience with his mother is different.

“Writing about my mother’s death — it feels more natural to write in the first person, because these are my feelings and my experience directly,” Greenwood said, “and my connection to my mother who is no longer living goes so much more deeply.”

The question remains, for both the writer and the reader, whether a narrative about death should be told and for what purpose. Greenwood knows from experience that writers simply “think in terms of writing all the time,” so there may be no other way for them to process a loss.

“You just have to decide whether the writing is for the purpose of grieving, or if the writing is for an audience or not,” he said.