My Mortality Makes Me Want to Write

The newspaper tells me I’m going to kick the bucket in 2040. Based on my age, sex, and zip code, with the recent (lowered) life expectancies in this country, that’s my sentence.

As I first read this result, multiple objections popped up in quick sequence:

But – My parents each lived to be older than I would be then!

But – The health issues I’m aware of aren’t known to be life-shortening!

But – I thought I’d get more years than that!

After the Buts came the Yikeses:

If I only have 16 years – and who knows how many of those will be with an intact brain and body – I need to focus on priorities.

What’s important?

How can I figure that out?

After a few minutes on the Yikeses, another thought arrived: Oh wow – While I’ve been thinking these thoughts, time has passed, and I’m already closer to my expiration date, with nothing new to show for it.

Photo of a silver colored tray with four cookies in the shape of a human, iced in black and white to resemble like skeletons, with a variety of facial expressions

Which cookie to take?
Image by Elsa Rincon from Pixabay

I paused to breathe normally, and reassured myself that the precise date of my eventual demise hasn’t changed just because I consulted a web page with actuarial data sorted by zip code. It felt like a useful exercise, though. So did a turn-of-the-year review I did last month, surveying 2023 for its key moments of satisfaction, meaning, and accomplishment and then identifying what I most want to make happen in 2024. It came as no surprise to see how central my creative pursuits – involving words and some music – were to every aspect of that year-end review. Clearly those pursuits are significant and bring meaning into my life. So what am I going to do about it?

Life sentence + creative practice = ???

Mark Twain famously quipped: “Nothing so focuses the mind as the prospect of being hanged.” Even if we’re not expecting to face a violent death, there’s some useful focus to be gained in contemplating the inevitable – and how we’d like to spend our remaining time.

Can we routinely make the time for our creative practice(s)?

For those of us to whom a writing practice is important, are we committing to it, given that our time here is limited?

Can death help us to live?

In a memento mori blog, Noelle Beverly argues that “death is useful. The knowledge of our own end—and the end of all things—can be a catalyst for action. …Everything is fertilizer and furniture for story. Even death. Maybe, especially death. If we let it help us to live.” How do we do that – let death help us to live? For starters, I think we need to be alert to perfectionism.

Can we shake off perfectionism?

It’s easy to fall under the spell. As Tara Brach says, “[Imperfection] is a natural part of existing.” But perfectionism keeps us from getting and staying in the creative groove. It’s deadly to the creative flame. Hannah Arendt wrote: “In order to go on living one must try to escape the death involved in perfectionism.” We need to free ourselves from its caustic, negative, hopeless influence.

Can we protect our creative practice with sturdy boundaries?

All the New Year’s intentions in the world won’t survive the everyday demands on our time and attention if we don’t build and sustain protective boundaries around our creative work.

A black and white photo of the shoulders and skull of a human skeleton. The mouth and nose area are covered in a black surgical mask.

Can we build a creative life that supports our health?

Applying common sense and science, we can be smart and realistic about the way we live our days.

Can we lose sight of time and age, and immerse in the work?

Call it denial if you like, but I call it being practical. Anne Lamott focuses elsewhere, saying, “My inside person is of no particular age and finds the person in the mirror confusing, a computerized version of what young adorable me will look like as an older person.” Like Lamott, I find it easier to live inside my awareness, not particularly concerned with how many years I’ve been around, or will have ahead of me.

How do you manage this? Does your awareness of your mortality dance gracefully with your creativity?  Any suggestions? I’d love to know.

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Thanks for reading!