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.