Write Before You Die

September 5, 2014


If I’m being completely honest, when Gwen Bell (now going by Gwendolyn Bell) emailed me asking if she could call me from a pay phone in Mexico I was afraid she was going tell me that she was in serious trouble and needed me to wire her some money. Because who uses a pay phone anymore? (How sad is it that my mind went to an elaborate hostage-type situation all because someone doesn’t have a smart phone.)

I’ve been following Gwendolyn’s work for a few years now. It started when she shut down her blog and began writing directly to her readers’ inboxes. She is the one who taught me that your email inbox is a sacred space – and I remember that every time I send out a newsletter to my list. Gwen is the one who taught me to take the work you’re doing and cut it in half. Then cut it in half again. The stuff that’s left – that’s The Work. Gwen also taught me about stoicism when she shared the art of negative visualization (imagine how much worse things could be … then be grateful) and recommended I read Stoic Joy: A Guide to the Good Life (it’s a good one – read it). Gwen Bell reminded me that truth is better than content. One of the things I love most about Gwen Bell is that when the work, or publishing platform, or city she is in no longer serves her she moves on. She’s bold and while I may never be quite as radical as Gwen, she’s taught me to be a little more brave – of course I admire her.

I first made contact with Gwen, after following her work for a couple of years, when she was dealing with internet trolls and typical hater bullshit and was basically like “I’m out.” I emailed her to say that I really liked her and her work – I asked her to keep me on her list. We emailed a couple times back and forth and eventually had a video chat. Gwen was in Brooklyn and I was in Sayulita, Mexico. I was completely distracted by the fact that I had just found out I was pregnant. Gwen was really into Git (open source collaborative coding) and it was a little over my head. But I was still grateful for the opportunity to connect. I asked her where her bravery comes from and Gwen shared with me that her mom died when she was thirty – so for Gwen everything after thirty was gravy. She might as well go all in… because life is short. It may be presumptuous, but I left our chat feeling a bit more like friends.

So when Gwendolyn asked me to call me from a real live pay phone in Mexico I said yes, of course. But first I bought her most recent work – Write Before You Die. It’s a 30-day course that is designed to get you writing – with prompts and even guidance from Gwendolyn if you choose. These days I consider myself a writer more than anything – but with a big shift in identity and new boundaries I’ve been second-guessing myself. So, I am looking forward to working through Gwen’s prompts.

When Gwendolyn called she sounded different than the last time we spoke. Maybe because she’s been speaking almost exclusively in Spanish these days – but there was a warmth to her voice. She immediately asked about the baby and told me that boobies for breastfeeding in Mexico are called “chi chis” – I’m hoping this will be Fox’s first words after “mama”. We were only able to talk for about 15 minutes but after some chit-chat about the weather and the baby we went deep fast – that’s how I prefer it. Centering your work around the idea of death, like Gwen is doing with Write Before You Die, can come across as morbid but I get it. (True story: I wrote my first will when I was five. And I think something about making life has me thinking a lot about death these days.) When I coach creatives who are working through The Fear it reminds me that we’re only here for so long – so why not just go for it? Gwen acknowledges the darkness of death but it’s her aim to shed a little light on it.

Gwen sees the importance in sharing your story – in your words and in a way you want to be remembered after you die. And she shares a sense of urgency in getting your story out now, because tomorrow is promised to no one. The Dali Llama has been known to say that he spends time daily thinking about his own death and that inspired Gwen to do the same. And so she does. Every day she asks herself “Is there anything else I need to say before I go to bed?” She said to me that it’s important to preserve for yourself the way you want to be remembered. Nobody else can do that for you.

When Gwen and I chatted almost a year and a half ago I was supposed to write up a recap but I found myself feeling overwhelmed about what to write – days passed and then weeks passed and new priorities showed up. So, just hours after our pay phone conversation Gwen sent me a link to her own notes on our interview. That was fast. I used to write that fast too. I used to capture, shape, and share my life as it was happening and these days I’m limiting myself as I figure out what it is I want to share – how I want to be remembered after I die. It can be paralyzing.

So I’m recommitting to hitting publish. It won’t be perfect but Gwendolyn reminded me that that’s not the point.

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