Write As If You’re Already Dead.
It was Saturday night, and I was stuck in traffic. Both sides of the freeway were tightly packed with cars — if Los Angeles was a literal failing heart, this section of the 405 Freeway would be the clogged artery that caused it.
I let out a yawn as I shifted my car into park, silently drumming my thumbs on the steering wheel to the faint beat of “What’s Going On”. A sea of bright red and yellow lights shone across multiple lanes of black concrete, creating an all-too-familiar image of what this city represents. A flurry of people urgently needing to go somewhere, but instead are humorously trapped because Angelenos travel by wheel, and not by foot.
As boredom crept its way in, my eyes started to wander. I surveyed the cars immediately to the left and right of me. A highly annoyed guy-in-his-twenties in a shiny black Porsche on one side, and an older lady laughing hysterically in a brown Buick on the other side (presumably on a Bluetooth headset, but I still can’t tell these days).
Interesting, I thought. I wonder where these two folks are headed. Probably two very different places.
I looked up once again at the flurry of lights. I had to squint a little before my next thought oozed out.
Damn, I wonder where ALL of these people are headed.
This is one of those thoughts that always end in a wisp of smoke, kind of like a fart that pitches up and funnels into a curious question mark. It’s not meant to have a definitive answer, simply because a satisfying reply to it doesn’t exist. What more can you say to it but, “Who the fuck knows?”
There are just too many lights. Too many humans that represent each of them. Too many stories for a singular brain to process.
I thought about how each light on this freeway represented a story, and how there were so many of them to be told. Everyone was going somewhere for a particular reason, and there was a story behind each person’s place on the road.
And this was just one section of a highway in Los Angeles. One small ant hill on a planet inhabited by billions of tales.
Although the vastness of the world can be a daunting thought, it is comforting to know that we too have our own web of stories that make us human. We have a wealth of knowledge and experiences that are meant to be shared with others.
But just as we cannot take in every story, the capacity for others to receive our own stories is limited as well. And whenever there is a limit in capacity, there must be a deepening in quality. In order to forge deep bonds with people, we must learn how to share experiences that will create stronger emotional connections with one another.
There is one particular type of story that is the most effective at this. It is also the hardest for us to readily share.
The Category 5 Story
First, let’s take a look at the kinds of stories we tell. We tend to split our stories and life events into the following categories:
(1) The ones that show us at our best (i.e. how you got that job offer, a Facebook post about your vacation, etc.)
(2) The ones that are amusing and “safe” to tell to the general public (i.e. your kid waddled over to a dog and rode it, and that shit was funny)
(3) The ones that are neutral (i.e. brushing your teeth, your commute to work, etc.)
(4) The ones that consist of gossip (i.e. she made out with that dude, she shouldn’t have, omg lol)
(5) The ones that fuck us up (i.e. self-destructive thoughts, challenging times with family and partners, controversial critiques, etc.)
A quick breakdown:
Category 1 stories are important to share, but they can quickly craft an edited version of yourself. They tend to follow a narrative that you create for yourself, and not necessarily the narrative that you truly possess.
Category 2 stories provide entertainment, and don’t get me wrong, I love these stories. However, I’ve found that relationships based primarily on these stories make for good acquaintances, but not deep friendships.
Category 3 stories illicit no response. If your story starts with “I started my car” and ends with “I arrived at my destination with nothing of note,” then people will simply walk away from you.
Category 4 stories don’t create meaningful relationships. Gossip is like a super shitty version of masturbation: it’s easy to do, feels pleasurable while you’re doing it, but makes you feel empty as fuck when you’ve finished.
The Category 5 stories, the ones that mess us up, forge deep-seeded bonds. They are powerful because they blend a universal truth (life is fucking hard) with a universal journey (yeah, but we’re progressing through it).
Sharing Category 5 stories also shows us how fucking amazing life is too. There are not many things that allow us to understand both the fragility and resiliency of humans in one sitting. Every awesome drama or thriller movie ever made is a magnified Category 5 story.
But our lives aren’t films. There’s no $100 million budget around it, and we aren’t acting — this is real life. Our lives are meant to be personal, and the difficult moments are meant to be shrouded in privacy… right?
And therein lies the drawback to the nature of a Category 5 story.
It is tightly wrapped in secrecy and exclusivity.
How many times have you told a friend a deeply vulnerable story and ended it with, “Hey, can we keep this between you and me?” And even if you don’t do this, there’s an unspoken rule that everything stays between you two.
We feel the need to protect the stories that have affected us the most. The ones that have caused despair, but the ones that have taught us so much. If they are so valuable, why do we lock them away and bleed them out little by little?
It’s because we’re scared.
We’re scared of judgment, of what people will think when we break the fragile armor we put on ourselves. What will people think of me if I write something about my depression? Will it be weird? Will they think I’m not “man enough” to go through life? Will they discredit me?
These thoughts come up for one reason.
Simply put: we expect to be alive after we share our personal stories.
You expect to still be breathing after hitting “Publish” on a blog post about how alcoholism destroyed you. Death is not expected to take you away after releasing a song that details your destructive relationship with your partner.
You worry about judgment only because you expect to be around to experience it.
…what if you weren’t?
Our Bodies Die, But Our Words Endure
“One should try to write as if posthumously. Because then you’re free of all the inhibition that can cluster around even the most independent-minded writer. You don’t really care about public opinion now… You don’t even care what your friends, your peers, your beloved think. You’re free. Death is a very liberating thought.” -Christopher Hitchens
Writing is something that I am relatively new to, but have already grown to love. I enjoy it because interpretation doesn’t cloud the narrative of my story. I can clearly state the story and my takeaways — thought for thought, word for word — without dilution of the intended message.
Writing walks the tightrope between raw emotion and structured thought. It’s a rare artform that allows for direct access into the creator’s thought process, and acts as a knowledge siphon from writer-to-reader.
It’s the best forum to learn about people’s triumphs and struggles.
It’s the perfect place to be open and vulnerable.
When we write, we are building a time capsule. The words we put down will endure far longer than our physical selves.
If I’m fortunate, I have already lived almost a third of my entire life. That went by in a blink of an eye. We are all just a series of blips on the timeline of human history.
Words, however, don’t share that characteristic. They have been passed down over centuries, and the musings/thoughts of those who wrote them are being cherished and studied to this very day.
Galileo published the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632, which reaffirmed the fact that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around. He knew this was going to get him in trouble. And it did. He was imprisoned by the Catholic Church for heresy the following year, and remained under house arrest until his death in 1642.
Galileo is long gone, but that book and its words endure.
The same thing applies for everything that we write as well.
“I never hit ‘Publish’ unless I’m afraid of what people will think of me. You have to bleed so much in every post that your superficial ‘you’ is scared.” -James Altucher
When you write a Category 5 story, you should be scared of publishing it. When you open yourself up like that, fear is natural.
But that’s when you know you have something worth sharing.
Fear penetrates us because we think today’s words will have a direct consequence on tomorrow’s events. But if we write as if we’re already dead, judgment is meaningless.
A critic somewhere can say that Hemingway’s work was dogshit. Whatever. Hemingway doesn’t give a fuck because Hemingway’s not here to hear it. His work has taken the place of his physical being, and it doesn’t reply back.
That’s a liberating thought.
I’m not saying that every piece of writing should be treated as a suicide note. If your writing’s central theme revolves around horrifying, impending doom, that doesn’t really help anybody.
Instead, use the thought of death to conquer your fear of sharing something personal. Realize that your words hold influence that will outlast your physical self. Each of us has a unique fingerprint in the way we write, and it shines through the most when we pour ourselves out in every piece.
Every person has a story to tell. Every light you see in a building and every pair of headlights you see on a car represents a story. By design, we are meant to be aware of only a handful of them.
What is limited in quantity must be deeper in quality. Since we can delve deeper into just a few of those lights, let’s learn the most from the ones we are fortunate enough to be around. In turn, we must share the essence of what makes us who we are today — particularly the moments that have challenged us the most.
Before you write and share something deeply personal, you will experience fear. But here’s the thing:
Fear stands at the border of perpetual inaction and life-changing courage. Liberation happens only after you cross that border.
Write as if there will be no tomorrow.
In fact, write as if you no longer exist.
In the end, your words will carry you far longer than the hands that wrote them.