what are you willing to leave unfinished?

Good morning good morning –

It’s a Thursday here, white-grey sky and just the right kind of chilly. The green finds its way into the garden. I wake up out of dreams that spread from my consciousness immediately upon opening my eyes, and after a few moments trying to get them back, I go downstairs to transfer the yard waste from the backyard buckets to the green bin that the city will take away. I say good morning to all the spiders who run off the spent lily foliage I pulled this weekend. I say good morning to the quiet birds. I say good morning to the city bugs.

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 “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”

You might have seen this quote, attributed to Pablo Picasso, on the writing ourselves whole Facebook page last week? It’s my latest obsession – I am living in it. I keep repeating these words to myself — over and over they ring in my head. All the projects I keep putting off, that I tell myself I have plenty of time to do. And yet, I don’t do them. I make time for paid work, for house work, for the dog, for family. For television, for administrative tasks, for cleaning up, for cleaning up the yard waste and making sure it gets into the green bin.

I don’t make time to move (that’s another post). And I don’t make time to rework/edit and submit my writing.

What are you willing to die having left undone, Jen? I’m asking myself often this week. Is the clean kitchen really worth it? Would you be all right with dying having left some dirty dishes? Or would you rather leave all the books hanging– at least you can tell St. Peter that you responded to that email message!

I’m being extra hard on myself these days. How many Yeses am I willing to offer others that end up being Nos to my creative life? Sure, it feels good to be helpful, to be the one who says, Sure, I’ll help, and see the look of relief and pleasure in someone else’s eyes. But that yes to someone else’s request is a no to something else. We can’t always and only focus on ourselves — that’s its own dangerous road — and yet, if we are conditioned to always help others before we attend to our own creative selves, then our work always goes unfinished.

The world needs our work. It wants yours. It wants mine, too. (whew, is that hard to type!)

“… what you are willing to die having left undone.” The heaviness of the quote, its matter-of-factness, is pushing me hard for me right now. A couple of years ago, it was this post from Kelli Dunham, which I also shared with all of my writing groups — don’t wait. Just send it. Just share your work. Send it out there. The world needs your words. (Read Kelli’s post if you haven’t seen it. Read it again if you have.)

And yet this chapbook I’m getting ready to submit? I’m just finishing it (“finishing,” let’s say) a year and a half later.

Here’s what I wrote earlier this week in a writing group. I’m going to share this with you, and then I’m going back to editing my chapbook before I have to start prep for tonight’s writing group. It was in response to the poem “A woman writer does laundry” by Anna Swir (from the book This Art: Poems About Poetry):

There are days I want to be a woman, and days I want to be a writer, and I wonder why, by age 43, I haven’t learned how to be both. You would think, as a gay woman with no children for lo these many years, I might have missed out on those tremulous indoctrinations, that I am the one meant to cook and clean and mend and respond to and make home and make pretty and make nice. But, alas, I didn’t miss it. All that culture got in anyway. And so when I sit down to writing what floods into my brain is every single thing I’m supposed to be doing for anyone else anywhere at all. You left that email unresponded to. You didn’t send prompts to that person who asked for them. You haven’t answered that question about good resources in Tucson for survivors. You haven’t made that call or finished organizing that event or completed all the other things you let yourself say yes to because it felt selfish to say no and anyway who are you to say you don’t have the time — all you have is time — you don’t have a day job. You’re a writer.

I recently came across this quote attributed to Picasso: Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone. This has struck a chord so loud in my heart that it’s still ringing two weeks later. I want to make signs from this phrase and paper my walls with them, hang them in every room, type one up in backwards letters and tape it to my forehead so I can read it in the mirror. What are you willing to die having left undone.  I think about the decisions the artist makes, the sacrifices, the parties she says no to, the community she doesn’t build, the dishes she doesn’t clean, the laundry she allows to pile,the floors she doesn’t wash, the calls and emails she doesn’t return because she doesn’t just need time to create, she needs attention. She needs an expanse of attention like the heady breadth of the sea, misty and unbroken on a summer morning. She things of all the men who’ve come before her who had no qualms about saying no even to children, their own children, because they needed to write. What will she say upon her death if she meets the children she forwent bearing in order that she might write books, if she never writes those books, if she just spent those hours wiping counters, straightening rooms, reading someone else’s novels, tending to email requests, and watching television in order to escape the anxiety and the voices of Need This Now that fill in upon her when she sits at the computer and dares not to open email? What will she tell those beings who sacrificed being so that she might bear books instead of babies? How she face them if the books are never borne? How will she say that doing the laundry and answering email was always, always, more important?

Please keep writing — say no to something you always say yes to, one of those things that always seems to get in the way of your writing. Practice saying yes to putting your work into the world. I’ll keep practicing, too.

One response to “what are you willing to leave unfinished?

  1. Danielle Ragan

    This is beautiful Jen! As I have spent much of my free time in procrastination and avoiding the calling to write, your words speak so true to my soul. Thank you for the reminder of just how important our words are and for the encouragement to keep pursing them along with you!