This essay originally appeared on the blog Big Other and was later reprinted on the SFWA website. I’ve rewritten it to make its points more sharply and eliminate repetition. The original version is still available on the other sites.
It was originally published in 2011. I had recently had a death scare.
On Writing and Mortality
A year or two ago, an article made the rounds which had asked a number of famous authors for ten pieces of writing advice. Some of the advice was irritating, some banal, some profound, and some amusing.
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, if you were willing to set the project down then it was the wrong project for you to be writing.
I dislike that advice. It seems to come 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.” (A convenient excuse for acting like a jerk.)
Saying that “I have to write” is a way of denying agency. Writing is a risky career and one that doesn’t always yield a lot of concrete rewards or social approval. But if you have to do it, then you can avoid the question of choice.
But ultimately, I don’t have to write. I have to eat. I have to sleep. I might miss writing. I could even see it having a psychological effect. But I don’t have to do it.
And if I had six weeks, I wouldn’t.
Recently, I came a little close to dying. Not as close as some others have been. I don’t want to make too much of the experience. But it changed how I looked at my life, and inevitably, how I looked at my writing. For a while, when I thought I might die, I was viewing myself and my future with tunnel vision–there didn’t seem to be a future to write in.
I regretted that. I wished to have experienced more, and helped more people–and yes, I wished I’d written better things.
But what I really wanted, what I really would have missed, was time with my husband, my parents, my family, and my friends.
This isn’t a novel idea, that someone facing death would wish they’d spent more time with their loved ones. It’s a pretty normal idea, and one most people would probably agree with in another context. But if any project that you’d put aside if you only had six weeks to live is the wrong project and writing is something you have to do, that if you could be discouraged from it, you should be–then that implies anyone who prioritizes family and friends over art isn’t doing writing right.
For me, art isn’t something I do in isolation. I do it to communicate. I want to talk about the messy, wondrous human experience of being human. I’ve been honored to know I’ve written stories that have reached people, moved them, and/or made them think. But my abstract commitment to communicating with an audience that lives beyond me weighs less than my commitment to spending a few more hours with my husband. I do not believe these strangers’ lives would be impoverished more than his and my lives would be enriched.
This isn’t an argument against art. When one has more than six weeks to live, calculations change. My husband and I have decided it’s worth it for him to work eight hours a day so we have enough money to live the way we want to live. I spend time that I could be with him writing and working.
Life is amazing. Art is amazing. Human being are amazing. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t write.
But art isn’t only important if it’s the kind of art someone would write in their last six weeks.
And artists aren’t only real artists if they’d spend their last few days creating art.
Iain M Banks stopped writing once he found out he hadn’t long to live. He got married, saw a bit of the world and spent time with friends. No one would say he wasn’t a real writer.