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Writing and Mortality

A year or two ago, an article made the rounds which had collected ten pieces of writing advice from a number of famous authors. Some of the advice was irritating, some was true but banal, some was presumably profound, and some were amusing for their own sake.

One piece of advice that got picked up and repeated was the idea that if you were working on a project, and found out that you had six weeks to live, and then would be willing to set aside the project, it was the wrong project.

I really dislike that advice. It seems to me that it originates from the same place that makes writers say things like “a real writer *has* to write” or “any writers who can be discouraged, should be.”

First of all, if we take a class or race or gender analysis, of course this is an easier thing for people who are reasonably well-off, or not mothers, or part of the dominant culture to say. They’re going to have a lot of advantages in not getting “discouraged.” Everything from bias in the system to more concrete and nameable problems like poverty and being the caregiver of small infants and so on.

But even ignoring that, I don’t think the idea that writers *have* to write has much traction. I don’t have to write. I have to eat. I have to sleep. I might miss writing. I don’t *have* to do it.

I feel like saying “I *have* to write” is a way of absenting oneself from agency over the decision, consciously or subconsciously. Writing is a risky career choice and one that doesn’t always yield a lot of concrete reward or social approval. But if one pretends it’s not a choice, then one doesn’t have to worry about those things, or at least not in the same way. It’s not their fault that they aren’t making more money; they *have* to write. They don’t have to doubt themselves; they had no choice. Likewise, how could you be so cruel to doubt them when this is something they must do to survive?

Art is cool. But it’s not bread.

And if I had six weeks to live, I would want to spend as much of them with my husband, family and friends as I possibly could.

I had to think about this recently because I came a little close to dying. Not as close as other people have been. I don’t want to make too much of my experience. But it changed the way I was looking at my life, and inevitably, it changed the way I was looking at my writing. For a while, I was viewing myself and my future with tunnelvision, as if I didn’t have a future to write in.

There were things I regretted about that. I wished very much that I would have been a better person. I wished I had experienced more. And sure, I wished I’d written better things, which in my framework of thinking about things would make me a bit of a better person (although I have to emphasize that I don’t think basing one’s self worth on one’s achievements is a *healthy* metric), and it would mean I’d had more experiences.

But what I really would have wanted, what I really would have missed, was time with my husband and my parents.

I don’t know. I don’t want to be maudlin about this. My intent isn’t to be all after-school-special I-wish-I’d-spent-less-time-on-my-work value-your-friends. But life has its beautiful, messy, wondrous parts, and art is–for me at least–an intense way of communicating them, of discussing the experience of being human, of bridging the gaps between our isolated little skull-bound brains.

But my commitment to communicating, in the abstract, with a future, imagined audience, must ultimately weigh less than my commitment to spending a few more hours of my last days with my husband.

I’ve been honored to know that my stories have reached people, and moved them, and made them think. This is one of the things I treasure about my life. But I don’t flatter myself that future generations will be impoverished for the lack of my last, six-weeks-to-live masterpiece. And I do flatter myself that my last six weeks, and my family’s, would be impoverished if I spent my time on that and not on them.

I don’t mean this as an argument against art at all. When there’s more than six weeks to live, obviously, calculations change. It’s worth it to me to eschew an hour or six of my husband’s company so that I can write a novel that it gives me joy to write, and hopefully gives other people joy to read. Hell, it’s worth it to me to eschew eight hours of his company a day so that we have enough money to live the way we want to live; we could undoubtedly subsist on less money earned in less time. (As an aside, I feel like I have to mention the projections that hand-to-mouth foraging societies are projected to have functioned with people working about ten hours a week, which provided them with a rich diet that may have been nutritionally superior to ours…)

Art is amazing. Life is amazing. Human beings are amazing. And if I didn’t think so, if I wasn’t awed by the complexity of it all, then I, personally, wouldn’t write at all.

But art is not only important if it’s the kind of art that would be written in someone’s last six weeks.

And artists aren’t only real artists if they would spend their last few days creating art.

  • Hi, I'm Rachel! I write science fiction and fantasy short stories. I've won the Nebula Award twice, and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and some other things. My seventy or so short stories are available around the internet as well as in print, and many of them are in my latest collection, How the World Became Quiet. I have a masters degree in fiction from the University of Iowa. I have five cats. I like my cats, but strongly suggest one stops at three. Or two. Excuse me, I have to go take care of cats.

27 thoughts on “Writing and Mortality

  1. Mortality scares- or actual deaths- put everything in perspective.
    All that “writers blabla” “have to write blabla” you know if you’re a writer blabla and so on is always the babbling of some idiot in my mind.

    Great piece.

  2. Any artist of any worth is distinguished by the depth of his or her humanity, as well as by their skill with the medium. That’s true even when the artist in question is a something of a creep, like say Djuna Barnes and Jack Kerouac; in their work, they rise to better than themselves.

    Still, much as I agree with Swirsky’s argument, what I mostly take away from this post is another warning about the danger of suffocating under the stale layers of advice, heaping up ever higher out there. Many & many a magazine, publisher, website, or other venue seems to be more interested in scrapbooks of recycled & often self-evident advice about writing than in actually supporting, publishing, & discussing fresh new work.

  3. Terrific post.

    I actually like to read writing advice, although I rarely take it — I think it says a lot about the writer.

    Seeing yourself as a person first and a writer second seems like awfully good priorities to me.

  4. there’s a lot of anti-Romanticism in the arts these days and a lot of approval for it. what does it mean? what does it mean to separate art from ‘real life’? if it’s a choice to make art, then do artists make the choice to make art and life the same thing? what’s a ‘calling’ these days? thanks, rs.

    1. Your criticism would have more traction if the words “real life” existed anywhere in this post.

      I discussed two different types of things I do with my life, and said that if I had six weeks to live, I would pursue one or the other. You might make a different choice.

      That doesn’t mean you’re not a real “family member” or that I’m not a real “artist.”

      1. I think what Joseph is saying has enough traction.

        I like that he asks “what’s a ‘calling’ these days?” The very question asks that we question the wisdom in dismissing the romanticized image of the artist – the artist as a burning, illogical soul.

        1. “The artist?” There’s only one model? I’m astonished. I, personally, thought there might be a difference in the way Emily Dickinson, versus, say, Charles Dickinson, would perceive their relationship to art, audience, commercialism, romanticism, burning, and otherwise.

          Maybe the conceptual model of reifying symbolic constructs is, itself, unwise.

          1. In case my point is obscured by my sarcasm, your comment appears to be attributing to me a claim I never made–that it is inappropriate for any artist to be a burning, illogical soul. Some artists may be. I haven’t criticized them for that in this post, only proposed an alternate model which is the one I use.

            What I object to is the construct that because I do *not* define myself as a burning, illogical soul, therefore I am not an artist.

      2. it wasn’t really criticism, rachel, just a question, rhetorically stated, about the approach to art in general. i have no reason to doubt your personal status as artist, family member or anything else. sorry for any confusion.

        1. Ah, sorry. I can see where my thoughts triggered those, but I was having troubleseeing where you were countering a claim I had made.

  5. Great post. I totally agree–if I had weeks to live, screw writing. I’d be just a human being with other human beings.
    I don’t have to write at all. I like to write. Maybe others feel differently, I don’t know. But I kind of think if you feel you must write no matter what or you will die, you are probably either a)19 years old and reading too much French poetry or b)manic depressive and unmedicated.

    1. Amber, you are funny.
      I think that people can be drawn to writing, and then it becomes a part of their life, and a habit, a way of dealing with being alive. Like smoking and drinking, but not as bad for you.

      I also feel that it is a great privilege. So many people are just too encumbered with getting basic needs met- not to mention lacking education–that the idea of being a writer isn’t an option. There’s this school I’m involved in the Dominican Republic and I hope that the little we do there- feed and educate- could produce the next Junot Diaz. But for every Junot Diaz, there’s millions of others, just scraping by.

      That said, I do get a little romantic about writing- I loathe the “it’s just like any other job”. For me, it’s not. I’ve had other jobs. For me, the creative process has to have some mystery, some weight, something has to be on the line, too. It’s not just a “job”.

      1. OH, you’re absolutely right, Paula. It is a huge privilege, no doubt about it. And definitely not just a job. Well, for me not a job at all since I don’t get paid to do it–but if I actually could some how get paid for writing it would be the best job ever in the whole world. I seriously count my lucky stars everyday that I have the leisure time and money and education to be able to do this. In a way, that’s why it’s almost more insulting to me when I hear people say they must write or die. I get wanting to write–I stopped for five years and it felt good as anything to start up again–but to me statements like that can’t be made by, say, your folks in the D.R. or many of the workers I represent in my labor union. They’d laugh and say pretty much what Rachel said, “Art is cool. But it’s not bread.” Sadly.

  6. When I’m in despair about writing, I say to myself, “I ought to get a job I hate like everyone else.” It isn’t really true that everybody who isn’t writing hates their job (or that everyone who is writing loves it). But it’s true that even though writing is hard, and a writing career is chancy, it’s what I love best as work.

    It’s also true that work isn’t everything in life, and that one can live without it, unlike oxygen, water, food, or shelter (for long). But I am a happier person and a saner person when I write, so even in my last 6 weeks, while I probably wouldn’t try to write a word for anonymous posterity, I might write letters to my children, or even just a diary so that I could live my last 6 better. But I don’t know–this past summer I took 2 months off, the first real vacation I’ve ever had from writing and it was the best summer ever.

    The 6 weeks to live thing is the kind of sound bite that is silly because you can’t encapsulate work, art, and life in any single statement like that. If writing is a calling it’s because it’s such a tough business and writers imo are often exploited. That is a social and political issue, which is a whole other story.

  7. In my experience, I’ve found that people with means and a relatively privileged position in life are the easiest to discourage from writing. After all, they have plenty of other things they can do and get positive feedback from, and likely some sort of sympathetic audience for their thoughts at their own dining room tables.

      1. Yup, it’s to the point where I tell my classes, “Some of you will drop the class. Almost invariably it’ll be the men successful in another field who do. If you do drop the class, please at least let me know rather than just vanishing.”

        This has been the case in both university work and writing center/continuing ed. style classes. Now dropping a class might not be the same as being discouraged from writing, but I have literally gotten messages from people saying things like, “After this feedback, I don’t even know if I want to be a writer anymore!” and they have invariably come from middle-class men, usually white, nearly always at least presenting as straight.

    1. Huh, that’s interesting.

      Over the years I’ve studied with a number of writers who wrote brilliantly, but eventually gave up writing. They aren’t the sort who’d drop classes (and I wonder if that’s where the gap in our experience is?), but they eventually left the field.

      In my experience, most of them are mothers. A significant but smaller subset are people with ongoing mental illnesses.

  8. I agree – no one *has* to write. We choose to do it. Writers love to mythologise and romanticise themselves. It’s an occupational hazard!

  9. I love this. The whole “you should only be a writer if you HAVE NO CHOICE!!!!” thing has always stuck in my craw too. Thanks for saying this so well!

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