Or, a Treatise on Life, Death, and Dreams
One fact that no one can dispute is that we all eventually die. We are already, in effect, dying — some of us faster than others. As our DNA replicates, mistakes or mutations occur. Our bodies are designed to fix those mistakes, but eventually more and more slip through and accumulate. Our cells die or stop replicating. Our bodies break down. Eventually, our physical bodies stop working altogether, and whatever happens to our soul — our essence — is really anyone’s best guess.
I know, I know, this sounds morbid. But it’s Halloween, so just bear with me.
If you spend a moment to contemplate your own death, you’ll realize that the idea of dying is in itself not a depressing thought. (What do we care? We’ll be dead!)
What depresses most of us is thoughts of who we’ll leave behind, what dreams will be left unfulfilled, or (if you don’t believe in an afterlife) that eventually you’ll step into the void and all thoughts, personality — everything that ever was you — will be gone forever.
How is this related to writing? November 1st marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’ve always wanted to write a novel, and you’re trying to talk yourself into it. Keep reading.
From the time I was a kid, I wanted to be an author. I wanted to write a book like the authors I admired, and this dream stayed with me as I got older. I toyed with it as a teenager, but I didn’t know how to write a novel. I wasn’t even sure if I could.
When I was 16 years old, my mom was diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer. She wasn’t a smoker — never had been. She was 47 years old, a force of nature, and I honestly thought she would get through it and live. She was dead within five months.
As you can imagine, this early tragedy shook my worldview. I was in shock. I’d always thought that there was a long lead-up to death. I’d thought you would always see it coming. More than anything, I’d always thought that my mom would “visit” me as a ghost or an angel after she died. (Seeing dead relatives was a known phenomenon in my spiritually plugged-in Catholic family.) But my mom didn’t visit me, and I was pissed.
Looking back, I can see I was having a spiritual crisis. I developed an idea that death was imminent — a sharp cliff into the void — and I turned my attention toward living a life without fear. Carpe diem, basically.
I decided with certainty at 17 years old that there was no such thing as an afterlife. I decided that we just fell into oblivion — poof — and that the only way to preserve my human self was through my writing. (You might say I had a bit of a Tom Riddle thing going on.) Regardless, I was determined to write a novel someday — if for no other reason than to cross it off my bucket list.
I’ve written lots of books since then, and my outlook has opened up. I no longer view my writing as an insurance policy against mortality, but rather my own personal joie de vivre. Whether or not I believe in an afterlife is irrelevant. What underpins my philosophy now is that we shouldn’t waste the time on Earth we’ve been given — however much that is.
While each of us humans tends to view ourselves as the center of the Universe, the Universe is timeless and infinitely vast. In the grand scheme of things, relatively speaking, each of us lives only for an instant. In the Lalitavistara Sutra, the Buddha says, “The duration of our lives is like a flash of lightning or a firefly’s brief twinkle; everything passes like the flowing waters of a steep waterfall.”
The lesson here, in my view, is that every human life is precious. The fact that you are here — that I am here — is a biological miracle. So many tiny feats had to be accomplished simply for the single cell that was you or me to replicate and blossom into life. Even to the scientific mind, that sequence of events is truly mind-blowing, and it deserves to be celebrated each day.
Our lives move quickly, so whatever we are afraid of, it will soon pass. Time — our lives — will pass. If you put off writing your novel for another month (or another year), it may never get written. You may die never having written a novel.
The inverse is also true. If you don’t put off writing your novel, it will get written. So even if you die next month, you won’t die without having first written a novel.
Question: Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I learn to really play the piano/act/paint/write a decent play?
Answer: The same age you will be if you don’t.
— Julia Cameron
Whatever fear or excuse is putting you off from writing will pass whether you write your novel or not. If you’re busy right now, this busyness will pass (though it will likely be replaced by a new sort of busyness). If you’re worried that your novel won’t be any good or that you’ll feel embarrassed for trying, don’t worry. Even if it’s bad — even if you are embarrassed — you’ll be dead soon anyway, so don’t worry about it. (More than likely, you won’t be embarrassed. You’ll feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment just from the act of writing.)
In her famous book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells an anecdote of a time about a month before her friend Pammy’s death when the two of them went dress shopping. Lamott had a date coming up, and she tried on a lavender dress that was not her usual style. When she asked Pammy if it made her hips look too big, Pammy replied, “Annie, I really don’t think you have that kind of time.”
Think about that for a second. Think about how ridiculous our excuses and fears must look to someone who is a month from death. Think about how ridiculous your excuses and fears will look to you when you are a month from death.
“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it, and I don’t think you have time to waste on someone who does not respond to you with kindness and respect,” Lamott writes.
She urges her readers to write and to find someone who is both a friend and a critic. I would urge you to surround yourself with a circle of people who nurture you, support you, and make you feel your very best.
If anyone tells you that you’re too old to write or that it’s silly or that you’ve got better things to do, this person might not be worth talking to for the month of November. (If this person is your spouse, I’m sorry. Perhaps a month of silence from you will give him or her some time for deep inner reflection.)
We all have (or have had) a friend or a family member who could be considered toxic. You know this person. She is the person who always one-ups you — the person who sneers at your dreams, picks apart your ideas, tells you they’re no good, or just acts as the proverbial wet blanket. When I think of a toxic friend, I think of this girl I knew in the first grade named Katelyn Phillips.
At the age of seven, I desperately wanted Katelyn to be friends with me. She was pretty and cool and had all the best stuff. (I know — a first grader’s friendship bar is not very high.) What I was too young to recognize is that she made me feel bad about myself. She told me my ideas were stupid, and I was never good enough to be her friend.
Fortunately, I moved to another school in second grade and never saw her again. But too many adults I know still have a Katelyn Phillips in their lives. Repeat after me: Life is too short for Katelyn Phillips.
What would you do if the toxic friend in your life suddenly disappeared? What would you do if you weren’t too scared or too busy or too old? What would you do tomorrow if you discovered you only had one month left to live?
Before you go to bed tonight, I want you to imagine what your life could be like if every day you did a little something that brought you joy — whether that something was writing, playing music, or taking a walk in the woods. I want you to imagine the life you could have right now if you just allowed yourself to. I want you to resolve for November to live that life.
If you long to write a novel, write your novel. If you long to do something else, do something else. Just remember to celebrate the days you’ve been giving by allowing yourself to have some joy.
Photo by Jeremy Thomas