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Author discusses passion, relationship with mortality

| Friday, December 1, 2017

Kate Sweeney, author of “American Afterlife,” said she began her journey of writing about death when she heard about “green burial,” an ecologically friendly alternative to traditional burial.

“Like so many Americans, I don’t have a comfortable relationship with the idea of death — it frightens me,” she said. “I didn’t know why I was writing the story. … I was writing the story because it was kind of interesting. I had never thought much about burial at all and now I’m at this place with ecological burial, and I ended up learning a lot about the conventional funeral industry.”

Sweeney, who gave a reading of excerpts from her book as part of the Visiting Writers Series at Saint Mary’s on Thursday, said her initial story snowballed into an exploration of how Americans approach death and mourning.

“I realized as I was writing that, to me, it was also about this horrible fear I have of death,” she said. “I’d love to be able to tell you that I overcame that because I met so many cool people while writing this book who aren’t afraid of death — like hospice workers and funeral chaplains and funeral directors who [think] it’s just a normal part of life — but I’m still terrified.”

Sweeney has also worked as a reporter for National Public Radio and a writer for a blog and podcast.

Radio, she said, forces reporters to be creative in different ways than print does. She said when interviewing someone for radio, there are other sounds that play a role in setting the scene, and it is up to the reporter to piece together those sounds to create a story.

“You pick the sound that you want that is really wonderful and evocative, and you write around it,” Sweeney said. “With print, it’s a different kind of creativity, and it’s all about the language. You have more of a blank canvas. I think that audio — podcasting and the audio radio — can be very creative, but it’s a sonic creativity.”

Sweeney said she loves writing creative nonfiction as opposed to straight journalism because it gives her the opportunity to acknowledge that she is not simply an “objective camera.”

“You have a subjective viewpoint,” she said. “You’ve had certain experiences, which shape that viewpoint.”

Sweeney said it’s important to allow subjectivity because true objectivity is not necessarily even possible as people are constantly shaped by their own lived experiences.

“There is a notion that journalists are just these objective lenses writing down the story, when in reality our perspective on something is absolutely shaped by the experiences we’ve had, the amount of power we have in the world, and the kind of interactions we have with the world,” she said.

“We need to question the possibility of real objectivity in journalism. What would happen if we acknowledged the different experiences we come from? How would that affect the writing that comes out, and how would that change the journalism that’s out there in the world and our relationship with the entity that is journalism?”

Writing is important, Sweeney said, to understand other people’s perspectives in life.

“Writing can force you to try to consider other human beings’ perspectives and the perspectives of other human beings who don’t walk in shoes that look like your own,” she said. “I feel like I have connected with other people and gotten to know their lives, and that has felt very powerful to me.”

Sweeney said people who want to be writers should sit down and write. She said it is a common misconception that writers write perfect prose the first time they try and that it’s really a hard process. However, Sweeney said people who have a passion for writing should pursue that passion.

“There is a lot in life that wants to distract you from your writing,” she said. “I was born with this thing that gives me deep joy, and that is my creative impulse. I don’t know if I was born with anything that is going to make me a million dollars or make me professionally known, but that is beside the point.

“Whatever your creative passion is, there will be moments in which you get side-tracked from it, in which life will disrupt that part of yourself. Don’t berate yourself for that. Be gentle with yourself and forgiving of yourself, but don’t let life steal your creative self from you.”

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About Nicole Caratas

Nicole is a senior English Writing and Humanistic Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. Now a senior news writer, she previously served as the Saint Mary's Editor. She was born in real Chicago but grew up in the suburbs, and she currently lives in Opus Hall.

Contact Nicole