This Mortal Coil

This weekend, one of my former students, Katie Beckett, died at 34.

Why talk about this at all? Katie was certainly a gifted literature student, one of the best I had had. Her research papers went above and beyond, and her interpretations of texts were nuanced and complex. More importantly, as you read about Katie’s life, you will see that she was an IMPORTANT PERSON (TM). There’s a law named after her, and her life was in part that of a disability advocate.

I have talked about death here. I’ve always felt that my father did more harm than good in the world. And my father-in-law had the life he wanted, and left those he knew better than he found them. Katie was a normal person in extraordinary circumstances, and left a legacy to other hospitalized children around the country.

The last time I saw Katie, it was during a writing session I was having at Barnes and Noble during finals week. She robbed me of some of my writing time. I resented that a little. As good a student as Katie was, her new hope was to be a YA writer. She tried to get into a YA program twice, but she wasn’t ready. I would go so far to say that Katie was a terrible writer of fiction. But there’s a lesson in that too.

When Katie asked me to look at her work, I was ready to be delighted. The writing I had seen from her in lit class led me to believe she had facility with words, and I knew she was an avid reader. What Katie didn’t have, however, was a sense of timing, plotting, dialogue, description, pretty much the tool kit of a writer. And I respected her enough, knowing she was planning on applying to a graduate program in YA, to tell her the truth.

I blasted her editing, which was non-existent. I asked her questions about characters. I tried to focus her away from doing too much in the book, toward finding out where she really wanted the character to go. Katie took my criticism hard, but sent off her grad school pages anyway, and was rejected.

Here’s the part where it gets interesting. I didn’t feel I was the right person to do an independent study with Katie, and my time resource is small. So, when she asked, I tried to hook her up with other burgeoning writers, and she took up an independent study with another faculty. Katie wasn’t giving up. She would send me her work from time to time, and I would continue to send feedback.

I never had the feeling that she was taking our advice to heart, or making those kinds of changes myself or the other teacher suggested. She was rejected again from the YA program. Clearly, for now, she was going to have to take another path.

Although I didn’t know it, always looming in the background was that every day could have been Katie’s last day. Doctors had diagnosed that she probably wouldn’t live past 10. She had 24 extra years and each day she continued to plan for a future that centered on her interests. She planned for the world to keep spinning.

I could see the path she was on as a writer. She was still very much in the infant stage of handling critique. I don’t know if she would have stuck with it or not. Already she was talking to agents at Romantic Times, and making writer friends. Already she was thinking about revising her book. I’d like to think she would have passed through the highly personal stage of critique, and moved forward into being able to separate herself from her work so she could improve it. Then again, the story’s main character was a disability activist living through her teen years, coping with the stress by cutting. I don’t know it would have been possible for her to separate herself from that.

But what I do know was that she was alive, and she had plans for the future. There will be no published book by Katie Beckett, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have put forth any of the effort. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have spent time on the critiques. That doesn’t mean that she was wrong to move toward this dream. Even if she had lived, and she had failed, the point is that she was doing it. She was living life on her own terms.

I think about mortality, sometimes in the abstract way middle-aged people do, sometimes in the paranoid way that people do when their parents die young. One of the things I hear from older people is that it’s too late for me to do (fill in the blank) because I don’t have enough time. Well, you were gonna be that age anyway. And wouldn’t you rather be in the middle of something if you should be so unlucky to die? Because you’re living life on your own terms?

Safe journey, Katie. And thank you for sharing your life with me.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

3 thoughts on “This Mortal Coil”

  1. Thank you for sharing that. I particularly liked ” but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have put forth any of the effort. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have spent time on the critiques. That doesn’t mean that she was wrong to move toward this dream.”

    Bless you both.

  2. I’m sorry to hear about the death of your student. She sounds like a remarkable young woman, who made good use of the limited time she was given here on this planet.

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