This week I received the news that a writer I had been working with recently had passed away.
When we began working together, he was already mid-launch of a nonfiction book about international business – the culmination of his years of success as an executive in Fortune 500 companies.
His publicist brought me on board to help him craft a broader narrative for his work, to develop his online presence, and provide him a path to begin engaging directly with like-minds and readers via social media.
While we did all of that, something unexpected happened during our time together. When I work with a writer, I always ask about their next book – about their long-term goals and vision. Oftentimes the author doesn’t have a lot to say here – they are so focused on THIS book, the one in front of them, that they don’t have defined goals beyond it. I suppose I would liken it to asking a runner about their NEXT five marathons when they are just heading into mile 20 of the marathon they are currently running.
But I always ask. And ask again. And again. Because I know that “a writer writes,” and a book is so much more than a product – it is not just something that you print, distribute and put a price tag on. A book is reflective of a person’s vision, wisdom, and larger journey. And these types of journeys always have a next chapter.
As I worked with him, some compelling things came out. Yes, he had mapped out ideas for another book – one focused on international business – but there was more. He spoke about ways he was helping others by volunteering his time locally, and his compelling interest in visionary leaders. “Luminaries,” as he called them.
When he began framing what this other book could be, his publicist was honest that he may have a difficult time getting attention for it in a crowded market on “leadership” books.
However, in my conversations with him, it became clear to me that this was his obsession, and increasingly, his life’s work. After what one would normally call “retirement,” he was now:
- Writing books
- Back in school seeking his PhD
- An adjunct professor at another university
- A Fellow at a notable organization
- Working with several organizations either consulting or doing pro bono work
As our work on the current book moved forward, and our conversations on the next one continued, he became focused. He wanted to move ahead with HIS vision of what his work should be, not be defined by what the market dictated. Even though he could write another book on international business (and decades of experience in his career would validate it); even though he knew there was a glut of leadership books on the market (that may not validate his); he knew where he wanted to GROW as a person starting a new phase of their life.
One day in the spring, I received a message to stop. To stop work on his current book. A few phone calls later, I found out that he had been diagnosed with something – though I wasn’t told what it was at the time. A few days later, he asked that I remove his website and social media profiles from the internet.
I felt a deep sense of loss at this request. To me, the internet is a network that connects us as human beings, not just some “technology.” It also creates a shared cultural history. To delete someone from it so quickly and completely felt as though I was doing harm to the legacy of this man. To what he has achieved already, and his vision for the future. But of course, I did as he asked.
In the ensuing months, I would receive occasional updates, and things with his health seemed hopeful in the way that we always seek to make them hopeful. Then a few days ago, I received news that he had passed away.
Many of the writers I work with begin their journey as an author at what could be called “mid-life.” After they are already firmly defined by other roles – job titles, as parents, and so many other things. They start a journey to write at a time when they are most overwhelmed by life’s responsibilities.
Yet, in their writing, they seek to craft a new vision for their work, and their life.
The passing of this client reminds me “it’s later than you think.”*
It’s later than you think, to create the body of work you hope for.
It’s later than you think, to affect the lives of others in a meaningful way.
It’s later than you think, to craft the identity you dream of.
I come back to this article again and again in considering the vision for my work with creative professionals: 5 Regrets of the Dying, by Bronnie Ware. In it, a palliative care nurse describes what she learns from people in the last 3 to 12 weeks of their lives. She describes these as their top regrets:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I didn’t work so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
When I work with writers, I often see them implicitly addressing some of these. They are seeking to express themselves more honestly, more publicly, and create a space in their lives that creates meaning for themselves and others.
If you are waiting to begin creating the vision of what you hope to share with the world, what are you waiting for?
* Taken from the 1949 song: “Enjoy Yourself It’s Later Than You Think.” Here is perhaps the most famous version of the song, by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.
**For the client who recently passed away, he was a very private man, and I didn’t know if sharing his name or specifics would be appropriate, so that is why I have not named him here.