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How the Most Common Deathbed Regrets Can Improve Your Writing

Note: This is a guest post by Adam Hughes. Adam is an author and tech professional focused on helping writers squeeze the most out of their creative time. You can read more of his work and downlad a free copy of his ebook on writing a fast first draft at The Moonlighting Writer. You can also connect on Twitter.

If you could identify right now which decisions in your life will cause you the most grief and compromise your writing success, would you want to know them? Would you take action to avoid them?

While most of us would love to have access to this kind of crystal ball, the most truthful view of our own lives is born only from the hindsight of our deathbeds.

Of course, by then, it will too late to fix our mistakes — they’ll be nothing but regrets that dim what could have been a more fulfilling life.

Bronnie Ware knows all about the regrets of the dying.

Bronnie is an author and blogger from Australia who spent many years providing palliative care at the bedsides of terminally ill patients. During her conversations with these folks, Bronnie noticed that certain themes popped up over and over, and she has since written extensively about the most common laments of the dying on her website.

These insights hold lessons for all of us, and authors are no exception.

Here, then, are the most common regrets of the terminally ill as observed by Bronnie Ware, and how you can use them to become a better writer.

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Of all the regrets that dying patients expressed to Ware, this was the most common.

When your health starts to fade, it suddenly becomes clear that you don’t have all the time in the world to achieve your dreams.

What seemed so important when you were well — finishing a report for your boss, cleaning the house every Monday, winning the local pinochle tournament — falls to the side, and you’re left with the stark reality of your life’s accomplishments.

Have you pursued your dreams and lived the life you imagined for yourself when you were young, or did you spend decades trying to fit the mold of the “responsible adult” your parents — or someone else — crammed you into?

Too often, it’s the latter.

What Writers Can Learn:

You’re probably reading this post right now because you know, deep in your soul, that you were made to be a writer.

Stories thrash your thoughts and demand to be unleashed. Or maybe you have an important message to share with the world that only you can relay.

And yet … something is holding you back. Something is keeping you from being the writer you want to be, whether that means you think you don’t have enough time to write or you don’t feel worthy of telling your stories or you feel guilty about spending your energies on writing.

Whatever the barriers to your writing are, you must hunt them down and then either crush them or hurdle over them. And you need to do it soon.

There is never as much time as you might hope, and every second spent not being true to yourself is a second you can’t get back.

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

According to Ware, this regret was omnipresent among men, but women may experience it more and more, too, as the first generations of full-time working mothers get older and move toward the end of their lives.

The crux of this type of remorse is not usually that the work itself was too hard or long, but what we had to give up in order to spend those hours at the office or to bag that big promotion.

And, almost always, what we sacrifice is time with family and friends, our own physical well-being, and the pursuit of other endeavors that would have made us more well-rounded and happier. Like writing.

What Writers Can Learn:

This one is a tough one for writers, especially the “aspiring” variety.

We know we have to write a lot in order to get anywhere with our goals, and we’re usually advised to write every day.

But burnout is real, and so are growing children. No blog post or self-imposed book deadline is worth missing out on an opportunity to play catch with your son.

Trust me.

He’ll be gone in a flash, and so will all those you love, one way or another.

On a more positive note, you can use this regret to get more writing done, particularly if you have a “day job” that does not involve writing.

In that case, writing is almost certainly an important outlet that helps you deal with life’s stressors, including work. Don’t let your 9-to-5 become so all-consuming that you can’t develop those deep, intimate parts of your being that make you who you are.

And no other “hobby” is quite as intimate as writing.

“I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

According to Ware, people have a tendency to bite their tongues in order to maintain peaceful relationships with those around them. It’s the classic “go along to get along” scenario, and everyone is guilty of it to some extent.

The problem with swallowing your feelings, though, is that you train yourself to view your own desires and needs as less important than those of others. What starts with blunted emotions and unspoken sentiments can quickly turn to unpursued opportunities and a general willingness to settle for “good enough.”

It’s a dangerous cocktail that leads to resentment and low self-esteem and, in Ware’s experience, can manifest in actual physical ailments.

What Writers Can Learn:

If there is one single habit that can turn your writing into a pile of uninspiring words, it’s sitting on your emotions.

There are legions of authors and aspiring authors in the world, and the only thing that differentiates you from all the rest is your unique voice. If that voice is timid and afraid to take a stand, you’ll fade into the woodwork faster than you can say, “I don’t care.”

Find your fire and blow it through every line of your writing. Only then will you make the maximum impact on the world that your talent will allow.

“I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

It’s easy to get so caught up in throes of everyday life that we stop nurturing the relationships that were once so important to us. And, if we have trouble making time even for family, it’s no surprise that friendships don’t fare well over the years.

But as death draws near, Ware observed, we tend to finally let go of trivial details that drove our lives for decades and begin to focus on the people who matter. There is an overwhelming urge for deathbed patients to reconnect with friends but, sadly, it’s usually too late.

What Writers Can Learn:

A writer’s life can be isolating.

You lock yourself away for long hours, pecking away at your keyboard and, when you do come up for air, it’s often to research your next book or story idea.

It may be, then, that we’re even more likely to lose touch with friends than our non-writing counterparts.

But we have more incentive to stay in touch, too, beyond the obvious benefits of friendship and love: stories.

The stories we tell are colored by our experiences and, especially, by the people we’ve known. Nurturing those relationships is one of the best “secret” sources for story ideas because everyone has a tale to tell if you’re willing to listen.

So hold your friends and family close and form real, lasting bonds.  Your writing and your life will be all the better for the effort.

“I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

No matter your lot in life, you can choose to enjoy each moment and each day, or you can choose to let your circumstances make you gloomy, cynical, and bitter.

In Ware’s experience, far too many of us choose misery until it’s too late to do anything about it. Ironically, it’s on our deathbeds, when we probably have the most legitimate reason to feel sorry for ourselves, that we finally learn to cherish each moment and rejoice in each opportunity, no matter how small.

What Writers Can Learn:

Authors are notoriously unhappy, it seems.

From Edgar Allan Poe to Emily Dickinson to  Ernest Hemingway to Sylvia Plath and on into the 21st century, many giants of modern literature were infamous for their dark moods and themes. Most of us lesser lights are prone to griping about our jobs, the election, internet speed, and even the fact that we have to write.

Really, though, we’re lucky that we get to write. Writer’s block and limited time may be obstacles, but they don’t really keep you from writing, do they?

Just remember that, someday, you won’t be able to write at all or do much of anything else.

Enjoy the privilege while you have it and keep a journal for those memories you want to cherish.

Go write.

Be happy.

About Bryan Hutchinson

I'm a positive writer and when that doesn't work, I eat chocolate. I help fellow writers overcome doubt and thrive! In my free time, I love visiting castles with my wife, Joan. Join me on Twitter and Facebook.

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Like a good friend, Bryan guides you through the process of facing your inner demons, conquering the craft, and creating work that matters. ―Jeff Goins

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  • samcarter44

    Good stuff, and these are all things I struggle with. Putting this post in my blog posts folder so I can refer back to it. Thanks for accepting Adam’s guest post!

    • Adam Hughes

      Thank you for reading, Sam, and I’m glad you found my post useful. And, I definitely echo your other sentiment — thanks, Bryan, for allowing me to share with your audience!

  • I just read in your newsletter you sent regarding this guest post that you weren’t sure about the title of this guest blog when you received it and I was wondering why are people afraid of meaningful topics and big, serious ideas? This guest post is awesome and it is so precisely because of the title and the topic.

    • Adam Hughes

      The big, serious ideas are tough to tackle but they also hold some of our most meaningful insights if we dig in to them. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts

  • AMAZING, Adam. You got straight to the heart of the matter. It’s incredible what the dying can teach us about living (and writing). Thanks so much for this heartfelt post. LOVED IT!

    • Adam Hughes

      Glad the post resonated, Marcy. Thank you for reading and chiming in.

  • Katharine

    I know this is true.
    Hello guilt, my old friend! 😉

    • Adam Hughes

      Hi Katherine … guilt does seem to come at us from many directions. Bronnie’s work really reminds me to keep an eye out for the regret-makers and try to head them off where I can. Not always possible, but worth the effort.

  • Robert Ranck

    Adam, this post resonates! – not only for the time I can spend with others as I grow older, but as THEY grow older and approach their own “deathbeds”. The finest two years of my life were the last two of my father’s life, which I spent at home with him while recovering from a traffic accident. He spoke of his regrets, such as they were, not in cautionary terms, but in an inspirational fashion, joyfully recalling the risks and choices of a life during the Great Depression, through, and then following WWII, raising a family, building his (and Mother’s) dreamhouse. His only warning was of the perils of letting one’s reach exceed one’s own grasp.

    A poignant reminder. Thanks.

    • Adam Hughes

      Thanks for those powerful reflections, Robert. Some of the fondest memories from my own childhood are the times I spent with older family members and family friends listening to their stories. Every person has such a wealth to offer if we’ll only listen.

  • Billie L Wade

    Thank you for a great post. I have struggled most of my life with the very issues presented. I consciously tell myself to live a more authentic life, then find myself falling back into the old thinking patterns. Seeking the mind shift to allow ourselves to be open, transparent and vulnerable is a perpetual process that requires vigilance and a willingness to get uncomfortable. It takes courage to be who we truly are. I journal daily, but I am new to fiction writing, blogging, essays, and creative nonfiction. My desire to write is strong, but fear of inadequacy muddles my inspiration, so I paralyze into a puddle of confusion and frustration. I will revisit this post often—the points resonated with me at a deep level.

    • Adam Hughes

      Hi Billie … thanks for reading and for your compelling thoughts. I think most writers run into confusion at some point, if for no other reason than there are so many projects we’d like to work on. I always try to remember that one finished story/book/post is better than several half-baked scraps that no one will ever see. Cheers, and best of luck!

  • N K

    Great post Adam! Thanks for sharing Bryan. While the thought of dying does make me feel somewhat uncomfortable, death is inevitable and thus it’s better to learn from the regrets of the dying while we still have time.

    • Adam Hughes

      Thanks, N K. Happy you found the post to be valuable.

  • Hey, Adam!
    Great post. 🙂 Sometimes I find myself holding back when it comes to expressing what I really want to say but now I’ll let my guard down because writing is supposed to be an experience where we can fully be who we are and reveal our thoughts and sentiments.
    Also for the last part, I just want to say that while there are writers who are known for their dark moods, there are also a lot of writers whose lives were changed positively because of writing. Because of writing, they were able to find their life’s purpose and impact everyone else around them.
    People’s writing made me love writing myself. I wish we could focus more on that.
    Looking forward to more articles from you, Adam! 😀