We are honoured and delighted to offer a free copy of Living Our Dying to the person who writes the most striking and memorable flash memoir based on their real-life experience(s) of death, near-death, or life-threatening illness. This is a fitting tribute to David Donnison – also interviewed for the book Autumn Voices – as approximately a third of Living Our Dying is David’s writing alongside 29 other contributors, many of whom knew David well. To give you an overview of the book, we offer you our reflections as editors:
Closes June 30th
Sheila Templeton’s Afterword
It all started 6 years ago, when I found myself standing next to Larry Butler at the bar during Sandy Hutchison’s wake. My younger sister had died a month previously and, for the first time in my life, a sense of my own mortality was hitting me hard. I turned to Larry and said something of this, my usual reticence on such ‘heavy stuff’ swept away with the rawness of how I was feeling.
And Larry said ‘Well there’s a group I’m in which meets to discuss death and dying. There’s a space if you want to join us’.
A place to talk freely about all matters relating to death and dying? Previously, I’d have run a mile away from confronting such matters! But right then, it felt exactly what I needed. So, I did join the group … and got to know lovely David Donnison, who hosted this die-a-log group in his flat.
He began writing Living Our Dying shortly after I joined the group in 2016 and at first, I didn’t participate very much in reading what he’d written. I was too occupied with simply getting to know the group … getting comfortable with sharing thoughts and feelings about death … such a taboo subject. I still have a lot of resistance even now. I’ve probably only scratched the surface of all my fears … and hopes … around the subject of my own death. Which is why I accepted Larry’s invitation to help co-edit this book.
Besides that, I wanted to help because of David … his kindness to me as a ‘newbie’ in the group and his elegant acceptance of his own advancing years affected me deeply and I liked the idea of being a part of ‘birthing’ this book which was so important to him
Editing Living Our Dying has taken over two years. It’s been quite something … a rollercoaster indeed. So many different aspects to the work; collating David’s writing; sending invitations to writers we thought would be a ‘fit’ for the book; trying to get funding; shaping the contributions into a coherent book; constantly communicating through email, phone and zoom meetings. Co-editing a book during the pandemic lockdown has led to a steep technology learning curve.
Reading the contributions has been a treasure trove of joy and wonder. Trying to get funding was hard. We’d long travails with Creative Scotland, which sadly were unsuccessful. But we then took a successful step into the world of crowdfunding, through Kickstarter … another steep learning curve. And one where we are so grateful for the wave of warmth and appreciation … and financial backing … we’ve now received.
Larry’s vision has always been to have David’s work as the core of the book, along with essays, reflections, practical advice, information … ‘and sprinkled with poetry’. And that is exactly a description of Living Our Dying. I’m delighted to have been a part of helping this very important book come into being. I hope it’s what David wanted. I’m pretty sure he’s smiling.
Larry Butler’s Afterword
The seed for Living our Dying was sown with the death of Kay Carmichael – David Donnison’s wife. David’s way of grieving was to write a poem every two weeks for over a year after she died; each poem speaking directly to Kay. After about twenty poems, I suggested to David that this could be a pamphlet, which I subsequently published with the title of Requiem. And Requiem has had four small print runs and raised over £400 for the charity Freedom from Torture.
During our many conversations leading up to printing Requiem, we agreed to convene a small group of up to 8 people with the explicit remit to simply talk about death and dying. We didn’t realise how enlivening this would become! During the first couple of years, at the end of each monthly meeting, David would ask: ‘are we going to meet again?’ And we would all nod, knowing the conversation had not yet concluded.
After Kay died, David set himself the task of archiving his wife’s writing and editing a selection from her two books and many articles and essays – particularly her weekly column for New Society called Saints & Sinners. Eventually a book was published by Scotland Street Press called It Takes a Lifetime to Become Yourself which is also the title of a collection of poems written by Kay that I published for her funeral. Living Our Dying rose like a phoenix from Kay’s ashes.
Until David died three years ago, the ‘die-a-log’ group met in his front room. Apart from the Chatham House Rule – where participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed – we have been free-ranging in our conversations with never-ending stories evolving from one meeting to the next.
David naturally took on the role of archivist: collecting articles, books, films, radio programmes, and writing mini reviews about this often-taboo subject. Eventually I suggested to David there might be another book on the horizon. Being an adept hand at writing books as a professor and more recently editing a memoir of his parent’s journals, and editing a book called Speaking to Power, he started writing and editing Living Our Dying – also the title of one of his poems.
That was six years ago. Each month David would offer us some new writing: a review, a poem, a eulogy, a letter, and eventually an outline for the book. Living Our Dying has been and continues to be a collaboration starting with the Glasgow group including Margaret Donaldson (who died before David), Lin Li, Rosie Hopkins, Laila Kjellstrom, Shantiketu, and Sheila Templeton. Although we are a closed group, we have inspired other groups to form in Edinburgh, London, Reading, and Dorset. Some of the writers included in this book are members of a die-a-log group.
A few weeks before David died, I promised him that I would finish the book inviting other writers to add to what he had written. Some of these writers had a personal connection with David. More than a quarter of Living Our Dying are David’s words. The work of editing has been a privilege and made enjoyable through collaborating with Sheila Templeton. I don’t think either of us realised what a daunting task it is to edit and publish this anthology. With each draft manuscript – and there have been many – I have felt David proofreading over my shoulder.
The book is inspired by the work of the late David Donnison and thirty-two writers, blending prose and poetry and looking at dying and the process of dying. Intrinsic to the book is the desire to discuss creatively a subject often regarded as taboo. Most of us, especially in the West, find it hard to look death in the eye. In Living Our Dying, we learn how to talk more honestly about our fears, our pain, our wishes around death – and what emerges is a richer engagement with life.
We look forward to reading your Living Our Dying flash memoirs.
Sheila and Larry