Bad Advice Wednesday: Try Not to Die

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


             It’s hard to type when you’re dead.


            This past March I drove up the coast, following the path of Hurricane Sandy, with the coastal activist and geologist Orrin Pilkey.


            “Maybe they’ll name a building after you too if you stay alive long enough,” he said.


            He was referring, lightheartedly, to a building that had just been named in his own honor, Duke University’s new Orrin Pilkey Marine Science and Conservation Genetics Center in Beaufort, North Carolina.


            “The trick is to stay alive,” he added.



* * *

            I am thinking lately that Orrin is right. Not that I’m angling to have a building named after me—though the David M. Gessner Jr. Creative Writing Plaza and Waterpark does have a nice ring to it—but that staying alive is a pretty key aspect of the writing life.


            Hemingway said something like that too, right? That it kind of sucks to finally feel like you’ve really got some sort of mastery over what you are doing, and that you’ve made it through the spastic turmoil of youth, and then your body has to go and crap out on you. Of course he took that into his own hands, didn’t he? He failed pretty miserably at today’s bad advice.


            This week I got an unsettling phone call from my doctor. Twenty three years out from testicular cancer, I still get my blood checked annually. The news was that one of the tumor markers was up a bit. Nothing probably. Or everything.

            I’m not trying to be a drama queen here. As I say, it’s probably just a little blip on the screen. But you have to admit that any of us on any day can walk out the door and not come back. My own response to the news has surprised me: it’s been mostly a philosophical one. One thing I’ve thought about a lot is how lucky I was to catch that tumor early back in 1989, and how grateful I am for the time since. Most of all of course for my wife and daughter, but so much else as well. This sounds cliché, but I think it’s cliché for a reason. I have lived a whole life between then and now. An extra life. A bonus life. I feel lucky.

            But this is a writing blog so I want to return to writing. While there are many human and emotional responses to contemplating our own mortalities, I want to bring this back to how death affects your writing. In short, it really gets in the way of it. My last Bad Advice was about the importance of a daily routine and as it turns out it gets in the way of that too. The enemy of this sort of necessary daily work is distraction and there aren’t too many bigger distractions than the Big D. I’m only partly joking here. Among the thoughts flitting through my head about the downside of expiring was this one: I won’t be able to get my work done.  

            This may sound somewhat cold-blooded, but I need to stress that it is not the first thing I think about when I think about not being around anymore. But it’s not the last either. In my journal I occasionally sketch down a list of “Future Books.” These are not whimsical titles, but books that I either have thought quite a lot about or have already done substantial work on (in some  cases, worked on for years). A few of these are books I have all but completed and will return to. Not apprentice work but books that have not published for various (sucky) reasons. The current list looks a little like this (without the parenthesis—those are for you, dear reader):


9. Properly Wild  (The Stegner/Abbey western book)  

10. Walking the Edge (Coastal book with Orrin Pilkey)

11. The Thing Itself (Cape Cod novel—worked on it for a decade and it’s very close now)

12. Ultimate Glory (Frisbee/testicular cancer memoir—much of it written. See a sample here.)

13. Learning to Surf (collected essays)

14. The Adventure of Mr. Id (comic Dr. Jeckyl/Mr. Hyde book that you can check out the beginning of here if you like)

15. The Scottish Ospreys (I want to get over to Scotland and live there with the fam and write about the first osprey comeback there to complete an osprey trilogy with Return of the Osprey and Soaring with Fidel).

16. The Adventures of Frisbee Boy and Frisco (Children’s fantasy book set in your basic post-apoc future that I wrote for Hadley and want to re-write.)

17. A Bill and Dave’s collection (of course!)


I suppose that’s enough, for starters. But I think you get the point. There’s a lot of work to do here, and any sort of early expiration date would get in the way. Of course I don’t have control over that, do I?  Which is annoying, to say the least. To have the tools to do something, and the drive and the desire, but not the time.

But now, after bragging about being so calm, I am getting morbid. It is important to remember that these things always seem more tragic when they are about you. Think of this happening to someone else and you can say, “What’s the big deal, they wrote enough books already anyway.” Look at Updike: Was he worried that he wasn’t going to complete number 73 before he died, afraid he would deprive the world of one last spurt of genius?  Ed Abbey had another more practical approach to the end of his life. He saw it as a deadline and got his last book, Hayduke Lives, done a week before that deadline came up. It was a bit of hack work but with a noble goal: money for the wife and kids he would leave behind.


* * *

            It felt good to write this. To articulate some of the perhaps insane things I’ve been thinking over the last week. But I worry about hitting the “Publish” button above. No e-mails or worried phone calls please. (That means you, Mom.) The scare is a minor one and I’ve been through a bunch of things like this before. I’ll certainly let you know immediately if it’s anything.

It’s the kind of thing we all have to go through on planet earth if we live long enough. For now I’m just not going to think about it and as it happens I know a good way to achieve that goal: I am going to sit down and do some writing.








  1. George de Gramont writes:

    Montaigne would love this essay!

  2. Suzanne Stryk writes:

    This “bad advice” may be the best ever. Which makes me think of an addition to your future book list:

    18. Selected Essays: The Best of David Gessner

    Now I guess I’ll have to live longer waiting for all your books. Barbara Kingsolver’s advice to writers goes along the same line: don’t speed and stop and stop signs (implication being that you’ll be alive to write).

  3. An Alewife writes:

    … and you should probably keep on writing for a long time, OK?