As things turned out, I did not die young.
Years ago, I started a story with that line — one of many stories I started back then and never finished — and have always liked it. Right away, you know the narrator isn’t young and isn’t prepared to be old.
Right away, you wonder why the narrator had thoughts of dying young. Was it hypochondria? Or was there real reason to expect an early goodbye? If the latter, why didn’t things turn out that way? Is the narrator disappointed?
Beats me. I never got that far with the story.
No doubt my inspiration was literary — the romantic notion of a young doomed writer frantically scribbling out great works before death can put a stop to the whole shebang. Think of John Keats, his life, and his poem “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” Why write? The poem suggests it’s a way of cheating death by harvesting the rich contents of the mind and gaining love and fame.
By the end of the poem, though, the speaker has witnessed love and fame sinking into nothingness. His “teaming brain” is sure to follow.
I think Keats has it right. The hope of gaining love, fame or immortality are poor motivations for writing. My reasoning is less dramatic than his, and its expression a whole lot less lyrical. I simply don’t see a natural, necessary connection between writing and any of those things. There are other, possibly easier, ways to obtain love and fame. Ditto immortality, which in this context just means an enduring reputation. What does that leave?
Money? Praise? Pleasure in the work?
For me, it has come down to that last one, the pleasure in the doing. Finally. After 40 years. Oh, I’ll take money and praise, should they be forth-coming, but those are both external, extrinsic motivations — just like love, fame and literary immortality. Other people have to give you a buck, a hug, or a pat on the back. In a lean season, they may not be there to sustain you. So look inward. Look for intrinsic motivation. Once you find that, no one can take it away from you. No one has to give you anything. It’s just there, always.
I’m not saying that you should write only for yourself. By all means, aim to entertain and enlighten others. That’s a huge aspect of the craft. Make stories to share, but take pleasure in the making, not just in the sharing.
It comes down to enjoying what you are doing while you are doing it. Take a moment to enjoy the thing you’ve made for its art or craft, but don’t go overboard. Go make another.
As Voltaire put it, let us go work in our garden. (Yeah, he put it in French, but that’s the idea.)
And now, having alluded to Keats and Voltaire in a single post, I’m going to stop.