Our latest Editors’ Roundtable examines Dudley Clendinen’s “The Good Short Life,” a career journalist’s startling response to being diagnosed with ALS. In addition to two books (“A Place Called Canterbury” and “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America”), Clendinen has written for GQ, the St. Petersburg Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times, among many other publications. Clendinen was kind enough to take the time – a commodity that has become precious to him – to talk with us about his essay. In these excerpts from our conversation, he addresses using his life as material, coming out on the op-ed page of the New York Times, and the upside of getting “paid to die.”
We’re talking today because of your New York Times essay on your plans to end your life before ALS completely takes away your ability to do so. When did you know you wanted to tell this story?
It takes a little backstory. I was born with certain genes. My parents were writers. They were both very bright. I ended up as a newspaper writer like them but I was also alcoholic and gay. I’m sure there were other drunks in my friends and family, and other homosexuals. But at the time I was growing up – I was born in ’44 – I didn’t know what to do about being drunk. I didn’t understand that homosexuality was an identity. So I did the usual things to myself. I married and I drank.
The St. Petersburg Times began to let me play with writing from my own perspective. Then I went to the New York Times, which taught me to write tight. And then to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to become an editor, because I was tired of running around. And when that attempt to build a great paper crashed, I was so burned out I ran out of gas, because I was married and drinking and had a boyfriend on the side – which my wife knew, but it was exhausting.
I was lucky. I had one friend I knew who had a shrink, one friend of all my friends who I knew was in therapy. I called her shrink. She began to persuade me that I was a drunk and gay, two concepts I didn’t understand – and two pieces of fate, genetic fate, I think.
When I resigned from the Journal-Constitution as an editor as a matter of principle, I had no job to go to, and they were wondering why I had quit. I went off to treatment in Minneapolis.
And when I came out, I began to look around me. I separated from my wife, and for two years I did nothing but go to AA meetings, see my shrink, talk to my divorce lawyer, see my last boyfriend, and spend more and more and more time with [my daughter] Whitney.
During that period of self-realization, during that period of getting real for the first time in a personal way, I began to see myself differently, and I began to write more personally in a couple of ways. When the ’92 presidential campaign got underway, I had reported on presidential campaign coverage for the New York Times ever since ’68, so I had some experience. But I wasn’t writing about it. For the first time, in ’92 I was just looking and watching. And I saw this as someone who was for the first time understood himself to be alcoholic and gay. That makes a difference.
I had covered the religious right for the New York Times. I was the first to do that. I’ve written a lot about the South and civil rights. So I looked at the Republican convention, and I looked at the Democratic convention and Bill Clinton. The Republicans were using gays as their bogeymen. The Berlin Wall had fallen, Communism was no longer the bogeyman, so they were using homosexuals for that purpose. Clinton, on the other hand, for the first time as a presumptive nominee for a major party, was reaching out to gays and saying, “I understand you. Come to me.”
And I thought between those two polar opposites, there might for the first time form a national gay vote which could affect the election. So I called up the op-ed editor at the Times and suggested they write a piece about that. He said, “Why don’t you do it?”
I did, but in writing about it – to make it understandable to other people, I wrote it as someone who newly saw himself as gay, somebody to whom that change could matter, so people reading could understand the feelings of someone who, for the first time, was being embraced by the American political system.
It became a coming-out piece. I didn’t really intend for it to be that, but it became that, and, I think, the first time anyone had come out on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Maybe the last time – I’m not sure.
But it did me a lot of good. It solved the problem of “how do you tell people?” I had already told a lot of people, but once you’re in the paper of record, that’s pretty much it. You don’t have to worry about the subject anymore.
As life went on, I began to see other issues which were, I thought, universal to some extent. I began suggesting and writing about them on the op-ed page for the Times. And when I was an editorial writer for the Times under Howell Raines in ’98, ’99 and 2000, I wrote editorial columns occasionally from my life also.
So I ended up writing about being gay, being an alcoholic, and being legally responsible for old ladies who wanted to die and couldn’t. So I wrote about my cousin Florence and my aunts Bessie and Carolyn, for whom I was responsible. And then I wrote as a son about my mother, when she was dying.
I wrote about looking for love as a gay man in the age of AIDS for GQ. I wrote about divorcing and discovering my daughter, whom I know is the great joy of my life, in the process of divorce. I wrote for Lear’s. I’m a lucky bastard.
This is a long answer, but I think it will address your question. I’ve gotten in the habit of experiencing my life as both the person living it and the writer observing it. I’ve gotten in the habit of taking notes on my life experiences. I’ve been doing it since the days I wrote a column in the 1970s. That’s a long time now.
So when I got this diagnosis, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do at some point was to write about it for the Times. I’m lucky, I happen to have this relationship with them, and I’ve come to regard it as the way to pass on whatever understanding I think I’ve gained from my current narrative predicament.
And also it clears my mind and it frames it for me. I’m blessed with the New York Times having printed them all, and I’ve probably written more about my personal life, or from it, on the op-ed/editorial page than anyone else. I not sure I want them to think of it that way, but it just kind of worked out.
So when I got the diagnosis, the next day, I began to think like a reporter and observer and a nonfiction writer. I wrote to the director of the master’s in writing program at Johns Hopkins. I was teaching there that semester. I think I was a visiting writer or something, and I suggested a new course to him on living and dying in America, taught by a dying writer. I figured if he wanted something new and interesting, he might like that.
And it happened that he had a new dean who had just said, “You know, we need some new voices in courses.” [Laughs.]
It was complicated. What I was trying to do was to create a narrative out of this experience. Because I’ve spent so much time in AA meetings – I’ve been to thousands in the last 22 years and in so many hundreds of hours of therapy – I’m pretty clear on how I feel and think about things.
So this diagnosis has been an event for which life has prepared me, one which is not, as odd as it may seem, unwelcome. I don’t think I’m fatalistic, if you take that term to mean glum – I’m not – but I don’t quibble with fate. It’s not up to us. What’s up to us is how we accept it, how we embrace it, and whether we let it make us weak or strong, and whether we can see the humor in it, because there’s humor in everything. So long as we get that, we can find a way to enjoy it, and it makes the experience ours, which is also a way of making it more tolerable.
That’s a long answer to your first question.
You mentioned that you are two people: the person living the life and the writer observing it. Do you have suggestions for people on how to let the writer get control of the story when the time comes?
About 1,000 hours of therapy is a good start. I think the hardest thing for a typical reporter – an old-fashioned, I guess at this point, newspaper reporter like me – is to shift out of the third-person perspective. Writing un-self-consciously about oneself is not an easy trick. To the extent that I can do it, it’s because I’ve been working toward it in the pieces I’ve been writing for the last 30 years. That’s a long time.
The thing is to keep your sense of humor. I mean, be modest, be funny, at least in the way you see it from the inside. If you can’t illuminate your own understanding, you’ll come across as too dark for the reader. Don’t take yourself seriously. Take the subject seriously, but treat yourself as material which is inherently amusing, dramatic, entertaining and instructive. See yourself as a really entertaining writer would. If you can do that, can begin to see yourself as a really entertaining writer might, you might be able to become that entertaining writer.
We had to wait a bit to have this talk because you’ve gotten so busy. You mentioned a visit from an ex-boyfriend and a book contract. Are you writing the book now? What will it be called?
My choice is “Lemonade: The Good Short Life and Cheerful Exit of (by) Dudley Clendinen.”
The title says everything. It sounds egocentric – I don’t mean it that way. I think it helps readers if titles and words are very specific to a person, to keep it so that other people can relate to it.
I wrote a series of letters when I was first diagnosed. I’m not old by modern measures. I just turned 67. I’ve always been pretty active, fairly strong and all of that. So I didn’t expect this. Nobody does. I started writing letters basically saying, “Don’t worry about me, because I’m fine. It’s a big lemon, but I’m making lemonade.”
I wanted to find some way to reassure my friends and my family. If you can let people know you’re comfortable, that you can deal with something, they can deal with it. If you can’t deal with it, how the hell can you expect them to? It’s really important not to be selfish about this stuff.
Some people might say it’s the moment where it’s most reasonable to be selfish.
Then you’ll die alone. I won’t be alone. Who wants to be a lonely and miserable, selfish son-of-a-bitch and then die? I think it’s the moment when it’s most important for a person to be as graceful and empathetic and entertaining as possible.
Because A) it’s easier if you enjoy it, and B) it’s easier on other people if you enjoy it. And why do you want them to remember you as someone incapable of being the equal of this disease? There’s no point in that.
Do you have anything else you’d like to say about the writing life?
Well, first, this will be my third book, assuming I can finish it – and that’s not a given. But I’ve turned in the first chunk of it – a week ago Friday – and they like it a lot. I like it, too. If I can finish it, this will be the third book in a row to quote from an essay or essays on the op-ed pages of the Times. I guess my point is that if you free yourself to realize that sometimes your best material is you – not you, but what’s in your life, then you may find the satisfaction of finding ways to write about those things that find audiences and then remuneration. As a result I get paid to die. How good is that? [Laughs.]
You have found a grace in this that I find hard to imagine.
That’s what people keep saying. What surprises me, actually, is that people find that so unusual. I think the fact that they do find it unusual speaks to a really large need in this culture, which is that one of the things we really don’t do well at all as a culture is deal with approaching death.
We don’t deal well with individuals once we spy death coming at us or when it’s coming for the people we love. We don’t seem to know how to talk about it. We don’t seem to know how to feel about it in ways that are unselfish and truly thoughtful, or therapeutic and helpful.
It’s not so hard if you get the trick of it. And it’s really important. We waste a gargantuan amount of emotion and money in self-defeating, dead-end discussions on the subject of dying and how to die. We are so behind our own technology that it’s tragic, and we don’t seem to be doing anything about it. I think we’re stuck. It’s changing, but not that fast. And in public, in the political sphere of public policy and debate, of course, the subject is where the understanding and the rhetoric are the most behind the state of knowledge.
What do you hope this piece, and your book, will do?
The impact, or influence might be the better word, of pieces like this is hard to measure. I do know that I’m astonished at the response to this piece. It’s far – light years – in excess of any response I’ve ever had to anything. I was way north of 600 or more letters and notes and emails before I quit counting. They’re still coming in.
I’ve heard from several publishers. I got the biggest book contract of my life. I’m continuing to do the interviews and the conversations on Maryland public radio, and people listen. It’s amazing. The biggest joy is the reactions I’ve had. I’ve heard from friends who teach at Johns Hopkins and at Harvard Medical School that the piece has helped change the discussion about death and patient rights within the medical community in a way which they said would continue. It’s a little hard for me to imagine, but then again, maybe not. Something about it seemed to grab people’s attention. I don’t pretend to understand exactly why, but it seemed to be a piece that people noticed around the world.
[The original conversation with Clendinen took place by phone, but he added a final note by email.]
In reforming my life so thoroughly, starting in December, 1988, when I went away to Minnesota over Christmas, for treatment in what was then the only alcohol and drug rehab designed just for gay men and women, with a gay professional staff, in the world, I became thoroughly – though I hope not boringly – honest.
I’m the man with no secrets. With the wrong attitude, that can be a dangerous condition. But having a divorce jury trial, with a 12-member jury, helped a lot. Testifying and being cross-examined under oath about all my issues and transgressions, in front of a jury in Atlanta, was both very humbling and very liberating. I think that was 1990, and ever since, I say the same things in public that I do in private.
Writing now is conversational. I’m not on a soapbox. I do try to be entertaining about it, but I basically say what I am comfortable saying, in a voice that I hope is comfortable for the listener or reader to hear.