Today’s guest post is coming from Jen Cross, author of Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma. Jen is a brilliant writer who’s led transformative writing workshops through her organization Writing Ourselves Whole since 2002. I am so honored Jen took the time to share her awesome writing wisdom with us.
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
This quote, attributed to Pablo Picasso, is my latest obsession. Over and over, these words ring in my head. All the projects I keep putting off, that I tell myself I have plenty of time to complete, are clamoring for my attention. I make time for paid work, for house work, for the dog, for family. For television, for administrative tasks, for cleaning up the yard waste and making sure it gets into the green bin.
I make time to wash the dishes. But I don’t make time to complete, edit, and submit my writing.
What are you willing to die having left undone, Jen? I’m asking myself often these days. 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, too. 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’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!)
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, Jen. 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.
Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone. I want to make signs of Picasso’s 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 must make, the sacrifices, the party invitations she declines, 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 we who are artists don’t just need time to create, we need sustained attention to our creative work. We need an expanse of attention like the heady breadth of the sea, misty and unbroken on a summer morning.
I think of all the men who’ve come before me, male writers who had no apparent qualms about saying no even to children, their own children, because they needed to write. What will I say upon my death if I meet the children I forwent bearing in order that I might write books if I never write those books? If I 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 me when I sit at the computer and dare not to open email? What will I tell those beings who sacrificed being so that I might bear books instead of babies? How will I face them if the books are never borne? How will I say that doing the laundry and answering email was always, always, more important?
So my invitation today is to 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.
(Adapted from “What are you willing to leave unfinished?,” posted on the Writing Ourselves Whole blog, May 14, 2015)
Jen Cross is a writer, performer, survivor, and writing workshop facilitator based in the SF Bay Area. She’s led transformative writing workshops through her organization Writing Ourselves Whole since 2002. She is completing her MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University; her fiction and creative nonfiction have been widely published. To learn more, visit writingourselveswhole.org.