Liz Breazeale is a technical communications editor for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Pleiades, Sou’wester, Territory, Arroyo Literary Review, and Fence. Her book Extinction Events: Stories is available now.
Thoughts on Death, Extinction, and Being the Worst at Parties.
A few years ago, I went to a New Years Eve party with my parents and, when a perfectly friendly older woman asked me what I write about, I, being painfully honest, said, “Oh, right now I’m working on a story about post-mortem photography, it’s really fascinating, are you familiar? In the 1800s, people would pose and take pictures of their dead loved ones . . .” Truly, I have never seen someone’s face fall so quickly because of something I’ve said in genuine excitement. It was the exact opposite of what I expected. I was in the middle of my MFA program at the time, and in my defense, this conversation wouldn’t have been out of place there. The writers I know are largely a morbid bunch. Anyway, that poor woman walked away so quickly—why would anyone expect to be bombarded with the details of post-mortem photography at a party, right next to a slow cooker full of Swedish meatballs and a tray of cheese and crackers? I cleared the area around that cheese tray real quick, and I have no regrets.
I write about weird things. By that I mean, I write about topics that don’t typically come up in conversation. I dive deep into things I find endlessly fascinating, leaving me with random information about a million different topics (Did you know a paleontologist once proposed that maybe the dinosaurs went extinct because they expelled too much methane into the atmosphere? Basically, the dinosaurs farted themselves to death? Yep. You’re welcome.) And to convincingly impersonate an expert, I need to learn all I can about whatever I’m writing about, be it yellow fever, tornadoes, or uteruses. And I love talking about what I research! Reading all I can about what interests me is never a chore, and who doesn’t want to tell the world about what they’re passionate about? Even now, I’m struggling not to go on a tangent and tell you about the scientists who studied yellow fever to find out how and why it spread. Spoiler: a lot of them died.
In my new book, Extinction Events: Stories, I tried to tackle the idea of extinction. The idea that entire species can, and have been, annihilated from this earth. Although maybe you’ve noticed—extinction is a very difficult topic to discuss these days. One entire political party in our country is actively denying the simple scientific fact of climate change. It makes things very tense.
Although it’s kind of understandable; in the United States, we don’t like to talk about death. We don’t like to talk about being gone. We don’t even like to think about it. And our entire species, the billions of people on this planet, dying horribly and probably painfully? How could we even fathom the scale of it?
But we don’t really have the luxury of squeamishness anymore. Our planet is changing, catastrophically and quickly, and we may be past the point of no return. It’s difficult to swallow, and even harder to imagine.
I’ve read and listened to and taken part in some extremely matter-of-fact discussions about everything ranging from the mechanics of what can and cannot legally be done with a corpse (Have I verbally agreed to leave my skull to a friend after I die? Sure have.), to the white-nose fungus killing the bats, to the mysteries surrounding sexual cannibalism in the animal kingdom (nature’s scary, y’all). And maybe it’s because of the…unorthodox…places my writing takes me, but it’s clear that our language needs to be more blunt, more honest, and maybe even more accessible and understandable, about the scope of our crisis.
My point is, can writing and reading about these terrifying, unbelievably huge concepts, make us better at talking about them, whether at a fancy dinner party or a friend’s birthday get-together? (Have I described the mechanics of the Tarantula Hawk Wasp’s horrifying reproductive tactics while eating a veggie burger and celebrating a friend’s birthday? I don’t know, you’ve read this whole post, what do you think?) Because death and extinction are very frightening, paralyzingly so. It’s almost impossible to act, to know what to say or how to say it. But in researching the stories for my book, I will say: I learned about the other five mass extinctions that have occurred on this planet, as well as hundreds of smaller extinctions. I read about the boundaries between survival and destruction and how thin they are. It gave me an appreciation for what we’re up against, and I think it also gave me the tools to speak about our impending doom—which, I cannot stress enough, I will do at any time with great relish, so do not invite me anywhere.
So what am I saying, exactly? Read more. Read about difficult things, about uncomfortable things, about things that are existentially petrifying. Read about Tarantula Hawk Wasps, but don’t look them up on YouTube. Read about skulls, because at the end of the day, that’s what we’ll become. Read about creatures that live in the deepest, darkest ocean, because what else are you going to talk about at parties, your loved ones? Read about natural disasters, because we can never stop them. But also, read about extinction events—because life will always come back.