“It’s never too late” is a piece of advice we’ve all heard. It’s the go-to, all-purpose encouragement chant. Well, that chant is wrong. It’s also counterproductive.
There are indeed some things that it’s never too late to do, such as embarrass yourself. There really is no age limit for embarrassing yourself. Ditto for becoming famous or at least notorious, especially in our connected age, when anyone can become a celebrity or at least the focus of attention for a while. But when it comes to more meaningful things such as, say, writing, things are different.
“It’s never too late to start writing?” Wrong. Keep putting it off because “it’s never too late” and one day you’ll get run over by a monster truck without even having started your first draft. Imagine how stupid you’d feel if that happens. Provided you can feel post mortem, of course. The jury seems to be still out on that.
This is why I dislike the “It’s never too late” saying. It may encourage optimism but the other thing it encourages is procrastination. Now, while some people are professionals — no, they are virtuosos — in procrastination, for most of us it’s a pest. Putting things off to the last possible moment only works in certain circumstances and a writing career is not among them.
Here’s when it works: you have a task and a deadline. The deadline is comfortably far in the future and there are so many other interesting things to do instead of beginning work on the task. Yet time, alas, is not an elastic band, so it passes. The deadline is not so comfortably far in the future. Anxiety rears its head and (hopefully) spurs you into action. You can do it! And you do it, by the deadline. You come out victorious over yourself and you learn something: deadlines exist for a reason and it is to spare you the anxiety attacks by helping you learn to manage your time.
Here’s how it doesn’t work: you want to write a book. You have this absolutely bestselling idea, which is also interesting and touching, and deep, and it has a lot of important themes, and you can’t wait to write it. You have no deadline. You will live forever. You can start whenever but maybe not today or next week because school/work/family/rain/sun/don’t feel like it right now. And then a monster truck comes out of nowhere and runs you over and that’s that for your interesting and touching, and deep idea of a book.
You see, the fact of life is that it’s finite. We don’t live forever. Which means the deadline for making your dreams come true is yesterday and today is the extension that the universe has graciously granted you, so you might want to use that as best you can. You might not get another extension.
You may think I’m being excessively grim and you may be right. I’ve seen my fair share of death and this has taught me that without the slightest shadow of a doubt life can end at any moment. You could take all the care in the world, be the healthiest person in said world and still die “before your time”, which is one of the silliest phrases ever uttered or thought. There is no standard expiration date for humans or any other living organisms for that matter. That’s part of the beauty of life: you never know how long you have; the element of surprise is always there, tickling you into doing stuff, be it procreation, becoming a millionnaire, or writing a book.
It’s this element of surprise that should make you sit down and write the damn thing already after contemplating it for five years. And after you write it, it should make you rewrite it, revise it, edit it, proof it and publish it or start submitting it. Imagine the sense of accomplishment: you survived through the trials and tribulations of writing a book and no monster truck mowed you down in the street.
When the Romans said carpe diem, they knew what they were talking about. I know some like to interpret this approach as indulging in everything that can be indulged in but that’s just more likely to bring that monster truck closer sooner. The way I see carpe diem is to fill those minutes with seconds as Rudyard Kipling said. And I say this from the position of a former procrastinator extraordinaire.
I used to make these grand plans when I was in my teens. I was also full of ideas of how to help other people have their grand plans and solve their problems. What I wasn’t prepared to do was put in the work to make these grand plans a reality. I gradually let myself go with the flow, grand plans forgotten. And then my mum died when I was 22 and real life settled in rather suddenly.
You’d think a shock of this magnitude should have shaken me out of the go-with-the-flow run but no, it took another ten years before I came to my senses. For a reason that’s probably understandable I’d spend about a decade in the firm belief I won’t live beyond 51 (that’s how old my mum was when she died.). There’s the family history of vascular problems, there are my bad habits and there is my tendency to take insignificant things too seriously, which causes stress and stress kills.
It would be a miracle if I live beyond 51, I thought at one point. Or not, I decided later, because of that lack of a set expiration date and the element of surprise. Still, the approach of my self-imposed life deadline was one of the reasons that set me in motion and made me start taking writing more seriously. There’s nothing like the feeling of time running out to motivate you to do something you’ve really, really wanted to do for a very long time. The best part? Doing something you love is good for your health and increases your chances of living longer.
I’m 41 now and I really have no idea how many years I’ve got left. The one thing I know for sure is that it’s a finite number. My personal monster truck is waiting somewhere out there in the future. My intention is to be as happy with my life as I can when it finally catches up with me. Which is why I’m going to keep getting up at 4 am every morning except Saturday for as long as I can and write, even if I never publish a book in the traditional way that grants you a place on bestseller lists. I’ll keep rewriting, revising, editing, and proofing for as long as I have my eyesight (also not a guaranteed long-term deal) so if some day I lose it I won’t be too angry because I would have used it to the fullest.
It’s basically an insurance policy I’ve given myself and the hours I spend writing are, in a sense, the premiums I’m paying myself. One of the few things I have strong negative feelings about is, well, a feeling. The “Oh, my god, Irina, how could you be so stupid?” feeling I get sometimes when I realise I’ve wasted time on something that didn’t merit the waste or that I’ve done something plainly idiotic such as misreading fridge for freezer in a croissant recipe or millilitres for milligrams. You know the feeling.
I don’t want my last thought when the monster trucks speeds up at me to be “Oh, my god, Irina, how could you be so stupid?”. I want my last thought to be more along the lines of “Oh, well, that’s that, then. Pity it didn’t last longer but at least now I’ll see what all the fear and fascination is all about. Or not. Whatever. Oh, well.” That’s my definition of an accomplished life and I plan on having one. It’s already too late but I’ll do my best with what time I’ve got left.