You Are Totally Going To Die

Many Broken Graves
Over there? That’s your gravestone.

It’s there, on the hill. Or in the valley. Maybe under a cherry blossom tree or by a babbling creek. Or maybe you’re a sack of kitty-litter-looking ashes on a mantle somewhere. It doesn’t much matter because, drum roll please, you’re dead.

Or, rather, you’re going to be dead. One day.

No, I’m not threatening you. I don’t have to. Life paired with time have together earned that pleasure. Unless you’re some kind of vampire, you were born with a ticking clock whose watchface was turned inward so that none can see it.

You are totally going to die.

I’m not Miriam Black. I don’t know when. Might be 50 years from now. Or ten. Or ten weeks, days, minutes. I certainly don’t know how. Cancer might juice your bowels. A hunk of frozen shit might fall off a 747 turbine and crush you in your recliner. Bear attack. Meth overdose. Choke on a hot wing. Stroke. Heart attack. Robot uprising. No fucking clue. And I don’t want to know the specifics. I don’t need to know the specifics because we are all given over to the universality of a limited mortality. The one aspect of our lives that is utterly and irrevocably shared is death.

That’s grim shit, I know.

I’ve spent a goodly portion of my life worrying about death. Or, more to the point, about how it’ll get me. I picture death less as a comical specter and more as the black dog of myth, always hounding my steps, ducking out of sight as I look for it, but always regaining my scent and waiting for the opportune moment to strike. Sometimes this manifested as a kind of hypochondria, a condition no doubt exacerbated by a Reader’s Digest Medical Guidebook I found in my house when I was around 10 years old, a book whose graphic flowcharts aimed to help you discern the truth of your symptoms — though of course they usually ended up convincing me I had some kind of rare tropical doom parasite. (For a while I seriously thought I had worms in my face. For no reason other than my teeth had left marks on the inside of my cheeks and became convinced that these divots were WORM TUNNELS. So, y’know, thanks Reader’s Digest.)

If it wasn’t hypochondria plaguing me, it was sheer existential terror. The realization that one day everything I know and everything that I am would one day hit an invisible wall and drop off into a deep, black sea trench, never to be reclaimed. And maybe never remembered — after all, all those who care about me would one day be dead, too.

I know. WHEE, right?

There comes a point when all this either was going to keep pinning me to the ground like a heavy boot or it was going to be the thing that I could push past or even use as a springboard to fling my dopey ass forward. One day it occurred to me that this revelation about death could be viewed as something representative of freedom. A grim, unruly freedom, one with a somewhat grisly underpinning, but freedom just the same. Because we all share this thing. We all share the reality of an impending death. We are all dying. Right now. All part of a cycle of birth, life, decay, death, all part of the washing machine tumble of chaos and order, structure and entropy, light and dark.

None of us — not a single one — are promised tomorrow.

We share that because we share the possibility of death.

But we share something else, too.

We share This Fucking Moment Right Fucking Here.

This one. The one with the masking tape across it and the permanent marker signifying:


We all get now.

We all get the moment in which we exist.

A lot of you are writers. (Or “aspiring” writers, a term I hate so bad it causes a sudden chafing of my testicular region as if some surly ghost were rubbing a spectral bootbrush against my nads even as I sit here and type.)  And whenever I talk to writers and we get down to the nitty gritty of what they’re doing or hope to one day accomplish, they’re often mired in a sense of fear. Paralyzed sometimes by the what if’s and the big blinky question marks that look as much like a swooping scythe as they do a piece of punctuation. And a lot of writers are forward-thinking or future-leaning, expecting that the day will come that everything will work itself out and life’s magic highway will present them with an endless series of green lights…

…and they’ll finally get to do what they want to do.

My father lived his life in preparation for his retirement. Set everything up so that he could retire a bit early, move out West, and live his remaining years with the pleasurable, simple life for which he had waited. Of course, he died a few years into that retirement — so, while he had the privilege of living some of his dream, it sure wasn’t much when seen in the shadow of an entire life prepared for it. Too little time in the sun, too long in the anticipation of it.

Writers, artists, anybody: you are not promised that time.

You are promised right now.

I’ve said this before and I like to give a lot of these go forth and do it, please excuse my Doc Marten firmly ensconced in your spongy squat-grotto talks, and this one probably isn’t all that different from things you may have heard me say before. But it’s a thing I sometimes like to remind myself, and since this blog is primarily me-yelling-at-me, it’s a thing I’m going to remind you about, too.

You’re going to die, writer-types.

But you have now, right now, so use it.

And you may think that this advice for the aspiring-types only, for those novitiates on the Sacred Penmonkey Order, but it’s not. It’s for you story-seasoned word-brined motherfuckers, too. Because writers with careers short and long, we sometimes get a little lost in the weeds. Lost in things outside of us. Trends and markets, industries and Amazon rankings. We find ourselves jealous of other writers or fearful of the uncomfortable arranged marriage between the forces of art and commerce. Sometimes we forget that we have things we want to do, stories we want to tell, and we lose that in that the briar-tangle of uncertainty and anxiety and existential unease. Because just as we can as humans worry about the very nature of our existence, we can worry about our existence as writers, too. We worry about how long we’ll be allowed to do what we do. We wonder when someone will figure out that we’re stowaways on this ship, imposters at this party, strangers in our own chosen lives.

None of that really matters. I mean, it matters in little ways — in intellectual, commercial ways. But it doesn’t always help you to tell the tales you want to tell. It doesn’t always force that quantum entanglement between your ass molecules and the chair protons so that you can create some motherfucking art quarks, does it?

You can’t control a lot of the things you’re worried about.

You can maybe adjust them, or nudge them.

But you can’t control publishing. Or the audience. Or bookstores.

You can’t control whether a fridge-sized shit-glacier will drop off a plane and kill you.

What you can control is the height of your chair. You can control a little of your comfort as you sit at the desk — or stand, if you prefer. You can control which word processor you use, or which notebook you prefer. You can control what words you put down, in what order, and what story grows up from those words. You can control the work. That’s yours. Everything else is open to your occasional influence, but the one thing you can control is that you are writing this book.

And you have that control right now.

In this moment.

Not tomorrow.

Not in ten years.

Because you don’t know what happens then.

You do know that one day, it’ll all be over. And I can’t speak to what comes after — Heaven, Hell, Hades, Happy Hunting Grounds, Toledo — but that’s not the point. You don’t live for the end. You live for the moment. You live for this thing you want to do.

So, do it.

Right now.

You’re temporary.

Use that to create something permanent — or, at least, closer to permanent than you.

Let death motivate you. Let your inevitable demise impel you forward.

Go. Create something. Be the best version of yourself. Now. Here. This very second.

While you’re still alive.


  • A similar conversation about death and mortality prompted me earlier this week. I’ve been in a rut with my writing. Rejections are piling up. I love my story but not one else seems to even like the premise behind it. Whatever, not a problem. But I was playing League, and I thought about the conversation I’d just had, and it occurred to me “If I died tonight do I want the last thing I did was struggle in vain to climb a fantasy ladder in a videogame or to have been telling a story?” I’ve been having a lot less problems hitting my daily word count since.

  • Thank you for this post. Friday, my friend and an author of several books of historical fiction, went in for a rather routine surgery and came out with a cancer diagnosis. Her family and friends are reeling. The prognosis is good, but it’s one of those turn-on-a-dime kinds of things, like the time my friend Jim fell off the roof. It’s good now and then to remember that although we have no control about what happens in the big picture, we do have control over the details that happen in the here and now.

  • This is more relevant to what’s going on in my household right now than you could possibly imagine. My husband’s 40th birthday is today, and we just found out the other week that his father has an aggressive form of brain cancer and we’re nearing the end of his life. The idea of time slipping by has been forefront. My husband writes, and the one thing he takes from all this is that he doesn’t have as much time as he thinks, and that he needs to write more, *now*. So thanks, Chuck. I am going to share this with him right now.

  • Thanks for that. As a self-proclaimed “Buddhist with a small b,” this freelance writer already attempts to live by that mantra. But it’s great to be reminded sometimes, especially in such an eloquent way.

  • I was all contentedly wallowing in self-pity because I have a cold, and my head feels like it’s about to take flight on its own. Then I read this, and I feel somehow grateful to have colds because only living people have colds. Thanks!

  • I love your backhanded method of inspiration. Truly…well…inspirational. And as a French major (and former teacher), I practically marinated in existentialism so I completely get this. To add to that I’m a former military brat and the constant loss, loss, loss, made me ALL ABOUT the carpe diem. Great thoughts, as always, Chuck.

    P.S. You somehow made me laugh in the midst of all that angsty, existential goodness. You’ve got the chops, dude

  • Both my grandparents died on Tuesday, 4 hours apart. This story gets a little weird after that. They’ve been separated for almost 20 years. One lives in the the UK, the other in the Caribbean. Neither knew the other was sick. Although it’s sad and heartbreaking, despite miles, time differences and years apart, I like to think they died together in a weird poetic, romantic, mysterious way.

    People die, it’s a fact of life, whether we’re really prepared for it or not. But it does remind us, it could happen, our existence is short and now is the time, not tomorrow as tomorrow could be too late!

    So glad you wrote this post! It really helps! Sometimes you need that kick to help you star going again. Thanks! :)

  • Since I’m 50, this post is very much like what I’ve been yelling at myself lately. And I too read some articles in Reader’s Digest that scared the crap out of me as a kid. What was it with all those stories written by parents whose kids had died of leukemia or systemic lupus who felt compelled to write accounts about it back then (and most terrifyingly, how they did everything in their power to hide the truth from said child–that he/she was terminal–until the very end). Argh, all those hours of lying-awake-at-night-in-terror worrying.

  • This may be the most important thing you’ve ever written. For me, anyway. And I should know better. (My mom died at 56.) I live much of my life according to your idea here, but not my writing life.

    Thanks for a virtual bucket-of-cold-water wake-up call.

  • Yes! Yes! Yes! Use the fear as a kick to the rear! I really try to live this and think this. And if not every moment, at least at some point each day. Thanks again Chuck, for your inspiring cranium-morsels.

  • Thanks for the existential butt-kick, Chuck – you have just earned several thousand hugs, both real and cyber-flavoured. :)

    My father-in-law had a heart attack around Christmas two years ago. It was a massive wake-up call for him and he resolved there and then to finally start taking his diabetes seriously and adhere to the diet he’d been given. Unfortunately for him it was too late; the heart attack was just a symptom of the cancer that wasn’t formally confirmed by medical professionals until a month before it killed him, and which reduced him to a frail, bedridden shell of his former self at least six months before that. You’re so right – you HAVE to live for the now, because the future doesn’t come with guarantees.

    I managed to finish the first draft one of a novel I’d ever written in my life thanks to discovering your blog – and I’m still ploughing on through draft two. Sometimes (well, okay – a LOT of times recently) I get frustrated because I want it to take less time than it is and be DONE already… but I figure that even if it takes me longer than I want it to, as long as I keep on going I’ll get there. Even baby steps every day are better than leaving it to ‘the inspired days.’

    Thanks again for the pep talk!

  • May 8, 2014 at 10:01 AM // Reply

    As a fellow hypochondriac with too early access to a medical encyclopaedia, I’ve been panicking since your “get yourself checked for cancer” post the other day. Oddly, though, I find this post soothing, much as I find the idea of there being no grand plan for my life (as opposed to God’s will for me or something like that) comforting. I do what I want with what I have, and when it’s over, it is.

    It’s a common exercise for people lacking direction to imagine themselves on their deathbeds and thinking “what do I regret?” in order to discover what is important. I’ve always thought I was going to write, and I will be disappointed in myself if I don’t at least try. Of which I have to remind myself when I skive writing again and again. It’s nice you are here to deliver gentle reminders as well!

    • Agreed about the weirdly soothing thing. Morbid anxiety shared is morbid anxiety halved, I guess.
      Made me think of a line in Gerome Stern’s book about writing called Writing Shapely Fiction :
      “Ski, now.”
      hah! He’s another who’s number got called far too early. Sad business, this life thing. Also a relief to have been born, though I do miss the mornings when I woke up feeling retarded lucky just to be alive, no mental nudging in the right direction necessary.
      And as someone said below, glad to know other people out there are prone to tweaking out about Mr. Reaper. Hear, hear!

  • This is amazing – a great reminder. I’ve been thinking a lot about death and dying lately – although I was quick to tell my therapist it was in an existential, “why am I here” kind of way rather than a suicidal way. Wow, did this help me clarify priorities and move things around so that writing became central to my life, rather than something I tried to fit in around the edges. I am bookmarking this post as a reminder when I inevitably forget. Cool to see so many other people are also morbidly inspired.

  • May 9, 2014 at 9:38 AM // Reply

    My father died of a heart attack at the age of 45, leaving behind a widow, two young sons, and a notebook full of poetry and scribbled paragraphs. He’d always wanted to be a writer but never got round to it. That was the only inspiration I ever needed.

    Life is often shorter than you’d like it to be so hunt down your dreams, forcefully and remorsefully. There’s no time to lose.

  • Thanks for this post. Really helps put things in perspective as I’m going through some stuff with my mom who is sick/dying of severe liver disease due to alcoholism…so I’ve been worried about her, and have kind of forgot there’s things I want to get done too during my temporary time on this planet…like writing wise I need to get motivated again, and this has helped, so thanks.

  • OMG this post cracked me up! Yes, writers, do NOT NOT NOT wait until you are 70 to begin your book/story/play/poem BECAUSE when you finish it (and when you wait until you are 70 you write very VERY fast) you will KNOW/feel/sense/discover that you have, yes, actually HAVE ANOTHER clawing at your innards to get out, verily pinching you to get to the keyboard NOW. I know this is a truism. I know it because, as you probably guessed, I waited until I was 70 to actually sit down and write THE BOOK…and now cannot write fast enough (because after all, I AM going to die)…so I’ve gotta get back to it NOW, but listen to Mr. Chuck W because I don’t have time to come back and remind you.

  • We are all used to thinkin’ that death is just a *gasp* & then you’re gone but it doesn’t work that way. It’s bit by bit like the cartoon characters that take one step & lose a foot, another & an arm until they’re spread out along the sidewalk with only the eyeballs staring at you in the end. I am living my death right now. I’ve got that systemic lupus that wagnerel mentioned in the comments & it does just that…one organ, then a hand (usually the one that you write with), then capriciously takes the moisture out of your eyes so you have -literally-needle-in-the-eye-surgery…then your back discs go.You have more surgeries than you care to count. So how are you supposed to write your novels and get them out?

    A. One…word…at…a…time.


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