How to Write a Suicide Note: Serial Essays That Saved a Woman's Life

How to Write a Suicide Note: Serial Essays That Saved a Woman's Life

by Sherry Lee


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How to Write a Suicide Note examines the life of a Chinese/Black woman who grew up passing for white, who grew up poor, who loves women but has always married white men. Writing has saved her life. It has allowed her to name the historical trauma--the racist, sexist, classist experiences that have kept her from being fully alive, that have screamed at her loudly and consistently that she was no good, and would never be any good-and that no one could love her. Writing has given her the creative power to name the experiences that dictated who she was, even before she was born, and write notes to them, suicide notes.

Sherry Quan Lee believes writing saves lives; writing has saved her life.

Acclaim for How to Write a Suicide Note

"How to Write a Suicide Note is a haunting portrait of the daughter of an African mother and a Chinese father. Sherry dares to be who she isn't supposed to be, feel what she isn't supposed to feel, and destroys racial and gender myths as she integrates her bi-racial identity into all that she is. Through her raw honesty and vulnerability, Sherry captures a range of emotions most people are afraid to confront, or even share. Her work is a gift to the mental health community."

--Beth Kyong Lo, M.A., Psychotherapist

"Sherry Quan Lee offers us, in How to Write a Suicide Note, a deep breathing meditation on how love is under continuous revision. And like all the best Blues singers, Quan Lee voices the lowdown, dirty paces that living puts us through, but without regret or surrender."

Wesley Brown, author of Darktown Strutters and Tragic Magic

"I love the female aspects, the sex, and the strong voice Sherry Quan Lee uses to share her private life in How To Write A Suicide Note. I love the wit, the tongue-in-cheek, the trippiness of it all. I love the metaphors, especially the lover and suicide ones. I love the free-associations, the 'raving, ravenous, relentless' back and forth. Quan Lee breaks the rules and finds her genius. How to Write a Suicide Note is a passionate, risk-taking, outrageous, life-affirming book and love letter."

Sharon Doubiago, author of Body and Soul, Hard Country; and other works

Learn more about the author at

Book #2 in the Reflections of History Series from Modern History Press

Modern History Press is an imprint of Loving Healing Press

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781932690637
Publisher: Loving Healing Press
Publication date: 06/06/2008
Pages: 120
Product dimensions: 6.69(w) x 9.61(h) x 0.25(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Dying is Almost Over

Suicide Note Number One

Dear Self-Esteem,

Today I am writing to destroy the lack of you. Today I am going to dress you in fine recycled clothes. I am going to wear you, the royal purple of who you are. I am going to take you out in the middle of winter and promenade you. I am going to stand you on your head and turn you inside out knowing the snow angel in the front of my house is real, her halo is my halo and every speckle of grit that garnishes our diamond textured garment is invisible glue that has sewn us together.

I know what it is to be invisible. There are people who can't see me, people who don't want to see me, people who see only the parts of me they choose to see — my tiny butt, my skinny legs, my tawny complexion.

I don't know why I am so self-effacing. I don't know why I recognize ugly, stupid, and inarticulate.

How do I write away this woman who believes God is God and I must be beautiful for him? Why do I scrub my face, then cover it in liquid rhinestones? Why do I paint my silver hair red, like hell has no fury? Why do I say, no I'm not, when someone says you're pretty?

Why do I hide my words in stuffy rooms — afraid someone will say why are you so angry?

Why do I play the role of martyr? I know that martyrs have no choice but to die.

I will not get rid of her. I will not write away her experience. I will not deny her existence. But I will sever her sadness and wash the blood from her knife.

The angel in the snow has no shadow. There is no outlying grief. I see the angel herself rising. Slowly. Each proclamation, elation. Perhaps you will see her flying.

I am trying to write this suicide note, trying to kill off my lack of self-esteem. I am trying to make sense of why I dislike myself.

It is not a letter that can be written by one author. There are others that must give their approval

there is the mother, and the father. There are husbands and girl friends. There are hair stylists. There are ministers and there are professors. There are missionaries. There are governors and presidents. There are rapists. There are rich people. There are father-in-laws. There are brother-in laws. There are characters in books

I am a character in a book that will save me. I will teach me how to write and how to live. I am the angel that has always been on my shoulder. There are others. We are writing beginnings for endings. We are sharing our stories; we are rewriting the world.

Next to the last note

it's not about the man and the dog

though they both keep barking. It's not about good writing or bad, the woods or the inner city.

I can write notes forever, and might have to to live. It's okay. It's okay.

It's also okay to not write. To not write notes. To not write suicide notes.

It's okay to put away the putting away. The putting away of concrete things. The putting away of judgment, of being judged.


wherever we are, whoever we are, we are remembered.

The color red may be remembered, but not the dress or socks. The red that is you will be remembered. Is remembered not the poem that you wrote (maybe the poem), but its aroma, its taste, its texture, its sound.

The writing is not good or bad. The man and the dog are not good or bad. The woman, the husband, the sister, the brother -in-law, the teacher, the minister are who they are.

I used to believe in purgatory, always attempting to escape, and getting nowhere the paradigm is magic. Life with a sorcerer's hand — the witch and the writer. Allusions. Illusions. I can make my fake self disappear

the invisible seen, the silent heard, the fearful unafraid; angels triumphant! Living is hard. Writing is hard. The dark clouds invite us to rest, to mourn, to gather our black hats and swords.

I'm not who you think I am; you are not who you say you are.

It's all in the shuffling, it's how the cards are dealt. It's who is holding the cards.

Now you see me, now you don'tI am not today who I was yesterday.

I cannot write today what I could have written yesterday and tomorrow ghosts will appear and angels. Slight of hand

missing the movement, the moment, the transition, the process conjured by one's private muses.

There are no rules. There are only familiar recipes that haunt us, speak to us, that call our name — demanding that we stir the pot and boil the soup.

The man and the dog disappear. Abruptly. The sun sets in the west. Evergreens lose their sharp needles.

I practice magic.

A word here, a sentence there, a poem, a story.


Mix snakes and rabbits and choke-cherry trees. Mix black eyed peas and string bean chop suey. Mix tuna noodle casserole and apple pie. Mix and stir, shake and shout, and turn myself about

freedom. FREEDOM each letter a note in the song, in the singing, in the longing, in the giving, in the receiving. Last line, end of the line, end of the poem, the story, the book

sets us free

they are my words and how I write them. My ghosts and my angels and how and if and when and why I receive them. It is my madness and my happiness and how I perceive them. It is what I want to give and who I want to give it to.

Stir the pot or let it simmer. Jump in or taste what's cooking. Smell the dream and toss the nightmare.

Truth is smooth like jazz, hot like Tabasco, wet like whiskey, salty like pork, sassy like laughter, smart like girl friends, slick like water.

I want it to not hurt.

I want it to not waste my time. I want it to be nobody's fault (it is). I want it to not be fatal.

I want it to not be fatal.

I want it to sing. I want it to laugh. I want it to dance. I want it to embrace. I want it to soar. I want it to live. I want it to live. I want it to live. To live. I want it.

The man and the dog. I want them to live (just not with me). I want the woman to live (just not with me). I want the child to live (just not with me). I want to live. I want to live. I want. To

write. Fewer suicide notes. Fewer notes. I want to write love. I want to write love letters.

This is a letter of love.

Last Note

Some days I awaken fueled with anxiety: I want to shop, to eat, to go on vacation, to have money, to be loved, to be known.

I gather my notes, notes that will eventually save me — rough drafts that have captured my fear, my frustration, my life. Difficult. Painful. My fingers stiff.

My head aches; my heart aches. I keep writing. Overwhelmed. Exhausted. The dying almost finished; the book almost written.

Understanding waits for the end that is the beginning; this is how life is.

Intellect grinding raw the imagination, details of any day, tedious.

Why do I do this? Procrastinate. Alarms blast me from beds that have dirtied me and I must scrub clean uncertainty. Dress in morning blush and hush nightmares.

Drive and eat and shop and gamble until lucky sevens shake loose the losing and the words come tumbling. Jackpot.

Yes, by then, I've lost some of the verse, the lines jagged, the love lost, pummeled to past tense soon to be ignored. Unlike the cold winter.

I smoke wearing fleece gloves. Smoke hangs in the air like frigid poems burning holes in hands that need to write

suicide notes, suddenly

after weeks, or even months of rumination history remembers near death, but never buried: cut, slashed, drowned, disappeared, masqueraded. Extermination of one button of my soul or another

words whistling to be heard, sour notes.

I borrow someone's dog to walk. I talk to my sister. I list the books I want to read, the movies I want to see. I cook, I eat, I sleep while

the writer resists the writing, the poet resists the prose, the woman resists the man, the child resists the mother, the city resists the country, youth resists old age, survival resists suicide; and, then

I write. Endings stringing along until they are knots that can't be untied; gnarled and tight, flight impossible.

Blue spruce tangled in intricate webs of spiders' and angels' wings.

Sex reeks of love, yet semen are sophisticated enough to know the difference between coming and going; and, again

I write. Notes that I will revise. Notes that will reinvent themselves. Notes that will sting and notes that will sing — my mouth open, unbridled; words rippling

from an underground choir, having waited ever so anxiously to be heard.

This is the first suicide note I have written since I was twenty. An elegy not clamoring for anyone's attention. I don't give it to the boyfriend, the dead father, the woman, the man, the mother, the son, the siblings, the minister, the teacher, the therapist.

I read it again, and again, and again until it makes sense, until I say no to the poppies, the swallowed spit, the burning, the hanging, the gun until I acknowledge the lovers and the love, until I don't need to get out of your bed reaching for a pen and paper, until I can remember in the morning what didn't need to be written in the middle of the night, until I can say

I am still here, I am here, I am here.

Death Wears Black

"When artists render up the truth of their lives and those of others, it is as if they are cartographers introducing us to foreign worlds. Even with that, the world of pain is a place unreadable by many. Sometimes it is the pain of the earth, not of any one individual." — Linda Hogan

Suicide is her companion. Not a shadow; but an itch beneath her skin. Sometimes it surfaces, blue

welts and protruding life lines. Death in masquerade, wears black, collects memory — slowly. Life wears red, is always teasing, "I love you."

Suicide is the answer.

I am who I am not. I am not, who you say I am. Who you say I am is who you want me to be. I am who I am becoming. I never was. Until now. Death invites life.

She is not the wife, not the mother, not the partner, not the friend. She is not White. She is not Black. She is not Asian. She is not an immigrant (neither was she born here). She is not smart. She is not young. She is not beautiful. Everyone says she is angry, and I am.

Listen to the earth, the wind, the rain, the raven. Listen.

Suicide is her mantra, a familiar song to cut the pain.

She started singing when she was nineteen.

Was I murdered or did I kill myself?

One or the other was going to relieve her madness, she was sure of it.

Break the mirror, break the mirror, break the mirror.

Listen to the earth, the wind, the rain, the raven. Listen.

She tried to hang on to the only man in her life, God the Father. He was as much a figment of her imagination as any man.

"Dear God, the only father I know, love me."

Or, maybe she started praying the prayer when she was five, the year her father disappeared.

Maybe she is still praying!

How do you know if someone is important if he doesn't exist?

How do you know if you are important if you've never existed?

Last year, I tried to commit suicide three times. I lie. The third time I wasn't thinking about killing myself. I was only thinking about swallowing my sorrow with loud music.

She is dwelling in death so deep she can't wake up in the morning. She can't sleep at night. She doesn't want to be alone.

The music was so loud my VW Beatle rocked, back and forth, back and forth like the first time I said no.

The one thing she knew wouldn't save her were the pills. She was still smoking (and drinking) and she was as crazy as she remembered she used to be.

Beware of what you swallow.

I was inside a three-car garage, my white car running.

A man and a dog smelled gas; they didn't want to die.

She is saved by love and suicide notes. One and the same.

A new beginning.

Listen to the earth, the wind, the rain, the raven. Listen.

Because Writing Saves Lives

Rhetoric. I don't know what the word means or how to use it in a sentence.

Pay attention to audience, purpose, exigency — the rhetorical situation.

Who is my audience? You. What is my purpose? To save lives. Why? Because I want to live, I want you to live. Because I am a writer and I want you to be a writer.

Because writing saves lives.

Writers I admire break my heart because they have heartbreaking stories to tell and they tell them because they know there are others like me who want to hear them because our lives have been broken and we have stories that break hearts and broken hearts are open hearts and anything open can be filled with knowledge and possibility and full hearts must empty so stories are always coming and going

clutch every story, every word, every syllable of want, of need, of lust, of passion, of chaos, of gratitude, of tears, of laughter, of choice,

of necessity,

of whisky, of wine,

of culture, of song,

of knives, of fingernails, of whispers, of lies, of screaming, of prayer, of touching/

of not wanting to be touched,

of sickness, of silence, of tenderness, of motherhood,

of hearts attacking,

of suspicion,

of country western, of the blues, of rejection, of aha's and hallelujah's, of cayenne pepper, and wasabi, of sleepless nights,

of unemployment, of bankruptcy, of bruises, of fear, of frantic, of homelessness,

of blessings, of jackpots, of risk, of risqué, of flirting, of red shoes, of fantasy,

of crazy,

of knowing/of not knowing

When you can, write. When you can't live. When you can't live, write.

I am no longer shamed by who you say I am or what you say I don't know. I know how to break a few hearts. I can teach you.

It's about context. I can answer your questions with my life.

How to Revise a Rough Draft

It's time to stop writing suicide notes. Time to stop saying goodbye. Time to say the end

and begin

to revive

ego has been waiting, willfully, since birth to live. Not to be not buried in the womb, or glow outside the body, but to beat inside the heart, my heart, regularly, rhythmically, confidently.

It is time to stop running. Stop killing the messenger.

I am not the messenger. (Why did I ever think I was?)

I was the mother of grief, the crying woman

the listener the comforter the healer;

no, that is someone else's story.

I was the judge, the jury, the prison guard. Righteous; I threw love out with each new lover

ran from my own convictions/and theirs. Marathon junkie, I ran! Saving myself from my selfhatred.

Hallelujah. Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!

I could have been buried in someone else's story. Lived someone else's life. Dummied down, never looked up.

The blue spruce were locked on one man's island. Each glaring tree needled with dark secrets. His and mine.

I love you; I need you I don't love you; I need you.

Here, take mine. And he did.

And, I let him last in a series of life-long serial saviors

loneliness would have killed me deader than abuse

I can count them. Women and men and houses and jobs and friends.

See them disappear.

I spew them out like Devil Woman. Mad Woman. Mean Woman.

How to separate the evil from the good. How to separate the need from the love. How to know the men from the women. How to know the end from the start.

How to revise a rough draft and make your life better.


Scatter the Trash

Suicide Note Number Two

Dear Father-in-Law,

This is my last will and testimony. I am killing the white girl. I leave to you the Polynesian girl, the one your son claims that I am. (I am not from Polynesia. My father is from China. My mother is Negro. Would you like to see my birth certificate?)

I assume, considering your son's fear, the color black is distasteful to you. I myself wear it well, but not often. It makes other people uncomfortable, including my Black mother.

Truth is a legacy I will leave to my children, your grandchildren. They will not live with the lie I've lived with all of my life. What they do with the truth is up to them. I will honor who they are.

(Choice is only an option if you know what your options are.)

It will be difficult for my sons, your grandsons, but not as difficult as it has been for me living with secrets. They will have a mother who knows and acknowledges they are beautiful, and smart. A mother who knows they are afraid. A mother who is afraid for them.

Your son pleads, "my parents like you, why tell them you are Black and have them not like you?"

My response, "because I don't like my masqueraded self. I don't like my silence. I don't like lying under white sheets. I don't like any man loving me for who I am not, for who they want me to be. I do not like being afraid. I do not like powdering my face, straightening my hair. How many times will I be asked by people who see me with my brown babies, is your husband Black?"

No, but I will wish he was.

I have no visibility and that makes me sad. Black people recognize me, though, and Asians. You, like many white men, say "but you're different."

"Yes, I am."

My dreams were the same dreams as other high school girls. Love, marriage, children, a house in the suburbs, a two car garage.

Your wealth helped me achieve my dreams. But I am not happy. My dreams are nightmares.

Your son went to college, he doesn't have the student loans I will someday acquire. (All students of color don't receive scholarships.) What did he learn? How many empty bottles of booze it takes to fill the basement of a rented house? His wealth dangling from a family tree.


Excerpted from "How to Write a Suicide Note"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Sherry Quan Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Loving Healing Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Dying is Almost Over,
Suicide Note Number One,
Next to the last note,
Last Note,
Death Wears Black,
Because Writing Saves Lives,
How to Revise a Rough Draft,
Scatter the Trash,
Suicide Note Number Two,
It's about money,
So You Want Me to Write About,
Scatter the Trash,
He's Just My First Husband,
Mad at Love,
Suicide Note Number Three,
Love Letter: you should have been there,
When Do You Leave the Flawed Lover — Or Hold On?,
It's about love,
Here you are again, caught,
Run Baby Run,
Avoidance, About Writing,
A Strong Embrace,
Suicide Note Number Four,
Fire in the Bad Girl's Belly,
Bold in Her Beauty,
She Has Never Been Afraid,
Mother's arms kept me safe,
Sane Asylum Café in the Woods,
Writing on a Good Day,
I Want to Live,
Suicide Note Number Five,
I Didn't Know I Wasn't Breathing,
Poem After Poem After Poem: I write a book,
At Some Point Your Notes Begin to Make Sense,
It's True What They Say, I Am a Writer,
That's Where She is Now,
And, Finally, There is Quiet,
About the Author,
About the Artist,

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