Despite his untimely death in December 2011, Christopher Hitchens is still very much alive in our house - thanks not only to YouTube but also to my husband. As such, I have often been rudely awoken on a Sunday morning as the TV downstairs blares out, ensuring Hitchens’ dulcet tones triumph over the boiling kettle. Note: It’s rather hard to stay annoyed about being woken up when the waker-upper subsequently brings you a very nice cup of tea in bed!
Indeed, Christopher is ever prevalent in our lives due to him being somewhat of a hero of my husband. Over the years I learned to tune out Hitchens’ persistent voice, not believing much of what he said would be of interest to me.
I was not, however, completely indifferent to Christopher. In fact, when travelling through DC a few years ago, I rather enjoyed our pilgrimage to Hitchens’ former home (both Christopher and my husband would hate me calling it that, but I enjoy the irony). We had only intended to take a few pictures outside his old apartment block, but when a passing resident invited us in how could we say no?
Constructed in 1905, the Wyoming apartments are a grand affair with a stunning lobby of pale marble and ornate plasterwork ceilings. My husband and I were thrilled to see inside and enjoyed the security guard’s personal tales of how Christopher would come down to his desk to ply him with large glasses of whisky (Johnnie Walker, no doubt).
I was, therefore, more than familiar with Mr Hitchens when my husband suggested I read his final book, Mortality. At the time I was carrying out research for my novel on the process of dying (I sure hope nobody looked at my Google search history that week!) and he thought it might be of interest. I must admit I had my reservations as many of Hitchens’ titles are rather weighty tomes. But I was pleasantly surprised to find Mortality was much lighter (despite the subject) and didn’t require constant reference to my dictionary.
The book was published posthumously in 2012 and is a collection of his essays written for Vanity Fair magazine. As the title suggests, the subject of the book is his own mortality, having been diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
It seems like I am stating the obvious when I say Hitchens is an amazing writer. Reading any of his articles or books it is apparent from the off. It therefore feels a real privilege that a man with his credentials and talent was so willing to let us into the private and deeply personal experience of his impending death.
In the book, he writes like a reporter coming back from the front line to share the harsh reality of all he has witnessed. So painfully honest and frank at times, I wonder if it could just as easily have been titled “All you want to know about dying but were afraid to ask”.
If you have watched any videos of Hitchens debating, you will know he is a force to be reckoned with. He is quick, witty and takes no prisoners. Reading the first part of his book, this is the voice that clearly comes through. But as you delve further, the real man behind all that begins to emerge and the more vulnerable, human side of Hitchens is exposed for all to see.
This is not the first time he has written about his own vulnerabilities. Back in 2008, for Vanity Fair, he put himself through the horrendous ordeal of waterboarding. Not only did he write in great detail about his experience but there is also a short film available on YouTube that I highly recommend. In Mortality he refers to how it still affected him years later. His account makes you realise that even the strongest of minds can be fragile things. A fact I find both soul-destroying and comforting at the same time.
Whilst reading Mortality certainly gave me an insight to dying it also gave me some unexpected writing lessons. In particular, Hitchens writes that if you can speak well, you can also write well. Talking, I must confess, is something I fear at times. As someone who likes to take time to process things before I respond, I can struggle to find the correct words or feel pressure to have the perfect answer.
When it comes to writing, it is easy to neglect speech, mainly due to the understandable belief that words on paper are more important. In this respect I believe Hitchens hit the nail on the head when he said:
“If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s probably worth reading” Christopher Hitchens, Mortality
This doesn’t mean you have to be the best public speaker in the world to write. Not at all. But if you can take any small steps to improve your communication skills you are on your way to naturally improving your writing too.
Out of speaking and listening, listening (on the surface) can appear to be something we all do, naturally, without much thought. But in reality, how often do we actually, truly listen? I had previously been rather dismissive of Christopher Hitchens, tuning out his voice due to the fact I don’t share a lot of his opinions or views. By doing this I had missed out on learning some valuable lessons from a master of writing. This does not mean you have to agree or be influenced by what others say, far from it, but by listening you open yourself to opportunities to be inspired, learn or simply understand better.
Needless to say, I now have a certain fondness for Hitch because, despite our differences, I could never disagree with his finest philosophy…
“Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.”
Have you been inspired or surprised by someone with whom you think you disagree? I would love to hear what you have learned from your experiences and how they have impacted your writing – please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
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Watch Christopher’s waterboarding here
& read Christopher's article about the experience here