Children’s book author and memoirist, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, passed away a week back.
I have never met her personally and I don’t know if any of her books are a part of the brimming bookshelf of my sons. Still, I broke down completely much to the bewilderment of my husband and kids. It was just a few days back that I had read her essay, You May Want To Marry My Husband, in The New York Times. If you haven’t read that, I suggest you google it. It is a beautifully written heart-wrenching piece about… Yes, you guessed that right!
While I did cry for her as a wife, a mother and a woman, there was another reason to my tears. I cried for her as a fellow-author. I wondered about those manuscripts lying half-finished on her desk, those half-formed in her head and others that were waiting for her to give birth to. I cried for them. If just reading one article by her made me her fan, then imagine the potential of all the others she could have written. I mourned for those lost words.
As a person, I find the concept of death and after-life fascinating, but as a writer, I have always feared death. Till the January of 2014, I had been a professional writer for nine years of my life and I had nothing substantial to show for it except a few published articles, stories and poems. To make matters worse, I had pathetic first drafts of three novels in my cupboard. I feared that I might die the next day and my kids would have nothing to speak in my eulogy. Being a pantser, my first drafts are all over the place and incomprehensible. I could imagine them sneaking away in the dead of the night to a deserted area, light a fire and burn those first drafts.
It was the fear of death that made me abandon lucrative freelance writing projects and throw myself wholeheartedly into getting my book out into the world. This time, I promised myself, I would take the book to completion and not forsake it as a first draft. “You learn by completing things,” says Neil Gaiman. I printed out that quote and put it up on the corkboard in my study.
Once I finished the first draft in 2014, the fear hit back. What if I die tomorrow and there are only four shitty first drafts to my name? Imagine how hard it would be for my kids!
Funeral guest: “I’m sorry for your loss. My condolences. What did your mother do?”
My son: “She was a writer.”
Guest: “What is the name of her book?”
My son: “She didn’t finish writing one.”
I renewed my enthusiasm and went at it again. Each time, my interest waned, my concentration wavered or I whiled away time on social media, this fear was an axe swinging above me. It kept me going. On those days when I felt like giving up after another rejection letter, this fear spurred me on to try harder. When you know time is short, you don’t think twice about knocking on doors and jumping at opportunities. “Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” Mary Oliver asked in her ode to living with maximum aliveness. It was written when she was diagnosed with cancer.
My husband is amused by this ‘unnecessary’ fear of mine. “Death is a good career move for an author,” he jokes, “Stieg Larsson published and sold his books after his death. It could be one way to become a bestseller.” (After his ‘joke’, I promptly locked away the meat cleaver and now carefully examine my food for any funny taste.) Meanwhile, the fear is real. I have recently realised it will be this way for every project I handle.
With my debut novel having been published, I had expected it to abate, but no such luck. “Just one book in an entire lifetime!” The words keep reverberating in my ears. To add to that, the next book (in my head) sounds so interesting, exciting and alluring that I wouldn’t forgive myself if I die before writing that. There are only two solutions to this problem:
- Keep writing! Write fast… Write hard… Make sure you account for every single second of your day with words.
- Ship it out! Do it now! Stop pottering around with your manuscript till eternity. Unless, ahem… you are looking to become a bestseller like Stieg Larsson.
Robin Sharma wrote a book, Who Will Cry When You Die, that spoke about leading more meaningful lives. Amy has shown us through her life and words that even a stranger, across the globe, could mourn for your death. Now, that is what I call a meaningful life!