3 Tips For Getting Stuff Done From A Woman Who's Legally Dead

Playing Dead explores the strange world of death fraud.

Playing Dead explores the strange world of death fraud.

Exasperated by her student loan debt, writer Elizabeth Greenwood considered faking her own death.

According to her death certificate, Elizabeth Logan Greenwood died in a car accident during a trip to the Philippines in 2013. But when we meet at Wildfish Poke in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood on a mild spring day over four years later, she’s as consumed by the quotidian as the rest of us. At the moment, she’s fretting over the thermos full of tea that has spilled in her leather tote. A bummer, but there’s some silver lining: if her death certificate were real, she wouldn’t even be here.

The concept for Playing Dead, Greenwood’s debut book that explores the strange world of death fraud, was birthed from a struggle almost as universal as death: debt. In her late-20’s and in the wake of taking out a new set of student loans to pay for graduate school, Greenwood was overwhelmed by what she had signed on to pay back. When a friend jokingly suggested that she evade repayment by faking her own death, she knew—logically, at least—that the idea was ill-conceived.

But logic is often less powerful than curiosity, which is how Greenwood ended up with a signed and stamped death certificate despite being very much alive. She purchased it off of Manila’s lively pseudocide black market. Between the spark of an idea and holding it in her hands, however, she’d learned enough about death fraud to shelve the certificate away as a macabre souvenir and an unwise (but ever present!) contingency plan.  

All of which is to say Greenwood is well versed in the lengths one must sometimes go to in order to get something done, whether it’s freeing yourself from debt or writing and selling a book. Below, she shares her three most effective tactics (and don’t worry—none of them involve the black market):

1. Listen earnestly

I first met Greenwood in a “Creative License in Nonfiction” seminar she was teaching in Columbia’s undergraduate creative writing program. In the course, Greenwood challenged her students to question what it means to be truthful—a complicated concept in nonfiction, but one she says she hasn’t struggled with personally, even if she has flirted with fallacy when it comes to her own pulse. Considering the subject matter of her first book and her next (Love Lockdown will be about people who seek out relationships with the incarcerated), it’s an especially layered concept, because the subjects she’s chosen to work on are both bathed in the absurd and ready to make their stories known.

“It’s very rare that people really get listened to,” she opines over a bowl of raw fish and rice, “so people are often much more up for speaking to a stranger than you might imagine.”

2. Ask unabashedly

A bleached blonde prone to laughing at herself, Greenwood’s insatiable curiosity and unthreatening nature have given her access to gritty subcultures and high-stakes underworlds where she, at her own admission, really has no business being. The key, she says, is asking for what you want. Points in case:

When she was in the third grade, Greenwood was working on a science project about teeth, so she marched into the local orthodontist’s office and demanded an interview. Two years later, a civics assignment on offices of city government brought her to the mayor’s office for a sit down. The way she pursues her subjects today isn’t much different. If she wants to talk to someone, she asks. If she want’s something, she shows up.  

3. Straight-up ignore the status quo

 An extreme extrovert, Greenwood is uniquely suited for her particular niche in the writing world. She’s “willing to sit in the muckity muck of life,” bathing in certain uncertainty. But, when asked if she considers herself to be an artist, she pulls back. Instead, she quotes season six of Mad Men: She has the temperament of an artist, she says, but none of the talent.  

This claim is highly debatable, her successful writing career serving as perhaps the strongest evidence against it, but the tension between art and craft seems to be common among writers. When the status quo tells her to stop, Greenwood takes it as an invitation to push harder.

“There are times when I’m like, ‘Should I really be doing this?’ Everything in the world tells you you shouldn’t. Capitalism tells you you shouldn’t. Living in New York tells you you shouldn’t.” There is no reason, she insists, that any sane person would become a writer except for the compulsion of creativity, and, for Greenwood, a responsibility to tell wild and weird stories that illuminate what it means to be fallible and strange and totally human.

Words: Pippa Biddle
Photo: Elizabeth Greenwood