Write As Though There’s No Tomorrow

I sent an email to Nelson Mandela a little while back, asking him for an interview. These are interesting times—if you poke around a bit, you can often find a listed email address for all kinds of folks. Of course, the address I found for Mr. Mandela is probably one handled by a phalanx of administrative types who send most requests down a tube into large cellar vats, to be boiled with the suet and other table scraps. (These are likely the same functionaries who dispatch my queries to the New Yorker into a similar large vat of innocuous fats.)

But DOA queries aren’t my point here; my point is that if you don’t take the initiative to further your writing career, who will? If you have been sitting on an essay about your cousin Doreen who drained the family bank accounts, joined a Mexican drug cartel and now owns a quarter of the blood diamond trade in Liberia because you were squeamish about the family reaction, when will you write it? Every writing thought that isn’t written is just evaporated water.

I am editing the memoirs of a woman who is in her mid-sixties, and it’s provocative stuff: the political tumult of the San Francisco Bay Area 1960s and 1970s, filtered through the view of a rebellious coming-of-age adolescent who experienced a dizzying amount of personal roller-coastering. Lots of torquing family entanglements, including affairs, alienation and death. Even though many of the principals are still alive, she knows that she’s got to put the truth on the page—this is her chance to tell the story, and she’s not sparing feelings, including her own.

Fate Is Indifferent to the Closing of Doors
Now that my once-dark locks are streaked with grey, it’s become more clear to me that I have to write as though there were no tomorrow. Because there isn’t—you just don’t know. I see among my own friends and family where fate has closed doors on people who presumed they’d be long open. My father, who at 93 is swathed deep in the fabric of his Alzheimer’s, was a decent storyteller. Though he can still shakily—and almost randomly—utter occasionally clear thoughts, he can no longer command language. I realize now how little I actually know of him—and didn’t have the sense or gumption to ask. I still see stories locked in my father’s eyes, but they are his stories, not mine—and now he can’t tell them.

I don’t want to be morbid, just realistic. One good car crash can make “what might have been” the saddest song, or you can just peter out your time, thinking there’s bushels of it to waste. I have been a big procrastinator in my writing life, loving literature, but rarely writing passionately. Some stories published here and there, a fair chunk of articles, but never driven to write. But I have more impetus now (and I’m finally working on that once-moribund second novel, by Jove!).

I found one of the strongest messages of Seth Godin’s rousing book, Linchpin, to be this: Don’t settle. Do your best work. If not now, when? Take some risks. If you fail, so be it. At least you acted, moved the pieces on the chessboard, ate the cake instead of agonizing over its calories, said “I’m for this!” instead of “someday, I might be for that.”

Oh yeah—if you happen to talk to Nelson Mandela, tell him I’m waiting for an answer.

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14 thoughts on “Write As Though There’s No Tomorrow

  1. “I’M FOR THIS!” says the blond with the grey streaks to the brown-haired guy with the grey streaks.

    Although, I have to say, my unwritten thoughts feel less like evaporated water, more like evaporated milk.

    They’re just waiting to be hydrated.

  2. No one was entirely surprised that my grandmother lived 100 years, but she spent her last 20 in the grip of dementia, and I don’t think anyone anticipated that, she least of all.

    I didn’t write much of anything until those grey streaks began to show, but at least now I won’t wonder why I never tried. The agony of irreversibility is surely worse than the fear of flying.

  3. Annie, those evaporated milk thoughts are HEAVY—you need to introduce a nice mixer, like tonic water. Now that’s not only a bad mixed metaphor, but a bad mixed drink.

    But whatever your means of stimulating the flow, capture it as well. The Sierra Club won’t hate you if you dam that thought river, and make electricity on the page.

    Goodness, I’ve got metaphors crawling on each other like baby kittens. I’ll just back away slowly and hit that light switch on the way out…

  4. Jeff, thanks for taking a perch here. Yeah, it’s a tough thing to watch someone you know, locked in somewhere in their brain, with frayed vestiges of self left over. Watching my father, I think I’d much rather go swiftly than fade, but he does still seem to take pleasure in simple things, though he’s feeble as can be.

    And yes, I know we’ve got scientists (and memoirists) working feverishly on reversing time, but so far, the formula has been elusive. Don’t keep checking the bet or the next hand might never come. (Dear me. Metaphors again. Make note to have my water and oil checked.)

  5. “Sushi diem” —I did have to pause for a moment to consider this trope, probably because I was blinded by its punnistic brilliance. Or something.

    Phil, welcome to my nightmare. Thanks for the read!

  6. I totally understand what you mean. I worry about dying tomorrow and it’s not because I’m scared of dying, it’s because I’ll have died without writing all the things I want to write.

    I’m sorry to hear about your father. It’s hard to cope with watching someone we love go into such a decline. Best wishes.


  7. Brilliant. Brilliant. Love it. I sighed after reading it because I have always told my story – unless to do so would mean dying – and even then I told stories that got me shot at, brought on bomb threats and got me beaten. But I told. After a lifetime of being told I’d die if I told, I talked.

    When my dad was dying with brain cancer and I hadn’t spoken to him in 15 years I called him. We had lunch and I asked him to share his stories. He had so many. I didn’t get to hear them all, but the ones I heard helped me forgive him for the abuse. Life is all about stories – not just hearing them, but what we do after we tell them, after we read them, after we write them.

    I’m in the same frantic push to tell all now. And I’m so happy to see you doing the same. You’re such a gifted writer. I’m sorry about your dad – my mom is in the same shape and doesn’t remember who I am, although she remembers she has a daughter. Write on…

  8. Jai, I’m with you on the things unwritten being a haunting of sorts. I’m trying hard to avoid thinking of how much time I’ve wasted (a waste of time in itself), and just turning to the work. But play must be mixed in too!

    Thank you for the nice thought on my dad. Yes, it is hard, but he has lived a very long life, and is loved, so there’s value there. I dread his condition worsening though, which is inevitable. But let’s look at today’s face—tomorrow’s is still a mystery.

  9. Becky, I know that you haven’t flinched from telling it straight—and telling it with skill and emotional resonance. I know you’ve got a bubbling stewpot of tales yet to be told, but I know you’ll get to many of them (and we’ll be better for it).

    Thanks for your thoughts on my father. I hope the gravity of your mom’s condition can inspire you to new clarity and strength of expression.

  10. Tom –
    I read a 3000+ comment thread once. It inspired me to start a blog. It crashed and burned. Gack!

    And then I figured out why I wanted to write, and I found I knew what to write, so I started over.

    I “ate the cake instead of agonizing over its calories” and i wanted to thank you for your part in the recipe.

    There is no way to know where it will go from here, but I know fate is to late to stop me from beginning.

    Now, about those calories…
    -your biggest fan

  11. Now Dorothy, if you were my biggest fan, wouldn’t you have left me 3001 comments, just to demonstrate your fandom? Hmm, on second thought…

    Really though, it’s great when you know what you want to write—fate be damned! (Fate, if you’re listening, that’s just a figure of speech, you know.)

    Keep on scribblin’, good lady!

  12. I’m glad that you have realized the wisdom of just doing. There are many people in this world who aspires the achievement of their goals, yet are stuck with their dreams. It is said the everything is created twice, first in the mind, then in reality. Sadly most are stuck with the first creation. 🙂

  13. Walter, yes, I’ve had so many shimmering creations in my mind, which of course are just blank pages. So even if the material that I do produce isn’t the towering statement of fine imagination, at least it’s something real, and something real to build on. Thanks a lot for the comment!

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