What would you write if you knew you would die soon?
Today’s Guest Blogger, Rebecca Lawton, took the plunge and explored what it means for our work to be “so essential that we must complete it before we leave this earth.”
Becca’s Cool Writing Tips during the month of August were such a success, she’s repeating the series in September. So, if you missed out in August, you have another chance to be inspired by Becca Lawton’s Cool Writing Tips.
Becca opened the second week of Cool Writing Tips with this provocative quote from Annie Dillard:
Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you write if you knew you would die soon?
Becca responds as if she were having an intimate conversation with Annie:
Ms. Dillard, I’m so glad you asked that question. Now if I could only answer it.
“What would you write if you knew you would die soon?” is a good question, but it’s one I find myself turning from, wanting to say, “Next!”
Because to answer the question of what we’d write if we knew we’d die soon acknowledges that we will, in fact, die.
And, the truth of the matter is, we will. Someday. Die. Hopefully not today or anytime soon, but sometime. And, given that fact, what should we write today?
When I was writing my first novel I was also raising a child and working for a consulting firm that took the biggest part of my days. I’d rise early to steal a few hours before changing hats to care for my daughter and then go off to work. As I drove to the office, my characters still spoke to me, making their case that they needed my attention, and now.
I’d promise to get back to them and then immerse myself in my consulting work. I’d only begin tuning into the novel again on my way home.
Often—almost every day —I worried that I wouldn’t live long enough to see my novel finished. The thought that I might not finish this important life’s work terrified me. Not even when I was running the biggest rapids in the United States every day had I so considered death a possibility. Not even when I realized how quickly my daughter was growing did I feel immortal. No—it was the writing.
That we find our work so essential that we must complete it before we leave this earth strikes me as a positive sort of feeling, if paranoid.
Because, if we can’t really face the question as posed in Anne Dillard’s quote, maybe we can at least check in with ourselves about how we’re spending our time. We can ask ourselves, “Would I keep slaving away at this thing if I knew it was the last thing I’d ever write (or paint or design or photograph?) If no, then why don’t I regroup?”
We’re all terminal—but that’s okay. As Annie Dillard says, let’s assume that’s who our audience is. Because that is also who we are. And if we let that simple fact keep us honest and on track, I believe it will.
Rebecca Lawton is the award-winning author (and co-author) of seven books. Her path as a writer and fluvial geologist started with her first career, rowing rafts on the Colorado in Grand Canyon and other Western rivers.
Some of her writing stems from observations in the field as a guide and researcher. Her essays and stories have been published in Aeon, Brevity, Hakai, More, Orion, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Shenandoah, Sierra, Thema, Undark, and many other journals and anthologies.