So, it’s been a while since my last post. A long while. Of course it wasn’t intentional – I actually started this blog with really ambitious intentions, and still harbor quite a few of them – but sometimes life gets in the way of intentions. We all know this.
What I’ve been thinking about lately is, simply, that life often gets in the way of things and it kind of wears me out. Life especially has a way of getting in the way of my writing. Sometimes in the lazy, mundane way, the “oh I have to buy groceries and go to the laundromat and I need to catch up with this friend and wow isn’t Food Network interesting? Shoot I didn’t write anything today…” way. But sometimes it intrudes much more prominently, and that’s what’s been happening to me lately.
First, a bit of background: over Winter break I had some family drama. No big surprise there – we all have it, especially over the holidays. Don’t act like you don’t. But this drama was pretty painful, because it involved someone I love very much being hurt quite seriously, and the shock of this drama disturbed pretty much everything I was doing. I’m fine, and there’s no need to be concerned, but as I said, sometimes life happens and when it does it tends to wreck your plans. Intentions don’t hold up very well, it turns out.
But I don’t want this to be a post about “oh life happens, isn’t is hard, woe woe woe.” I want it to be about “what happens when your life outpaces your writing?”
More context: I am in the process of writing a short series of essays about my family, particularly about my sisters and I. It’s certainly a work in progress, but over last semester I managed to make a good bit of headway and was hoping that momentum would continue over the holidays. These essays are, to be as vague as possible, about things that have happened to my sisters and I starting when we were quite young, especially when we were about 12, 13, 14, and about how those events and decisions have continued to affect us. That’s all I’ll say for now because the essays aren’t done and I don’t think I’ll be able to finish them for a while.
And that brings us back to my question for today. What happens when life outpaces your writing? The family drama over break directly relates to some of the events and questions I explore in those half-finished essays, and it actually changes the story, pushes it past where I had written, where I thought the story ended. Now I don’t think I can honestly finish the essays as they are, but neither can I write this latest chapter. It’s still too recent, too fresh, and anyway I don’t know how it ends, where it will take us.
But isn’t this the constant problem with personal nonfiction writing, with daring to write about your life even as you live it? That the pieces get written and sent out and published and read, and you keep on living and writing and living. You keep discovering more, keep rooting out more lost memories, more lost stories, keep meeting and loving and losing more and more people. So how could you ever really capture that, preserve it under glass or between pages?
I guess you can’t. Of course you can’t. But you have to write, and you have to live. So what’s the compromise?
To cut off the story at some point. That’s what I’ve decided. To stop it at as natural a point as you can, and to make that one section as full and nuanced as it can be, and then to let it rest. Maybe this has been obvious to everyone else all along, but it’s a new idea for me.
The flip side, too, may be obvious, but here it is: to admit when your life is more important than whatever you’re writing about it, and to use that knowledge to take a big step back from the writing desk. There are some stories you can wrap up pretty neatly and then leave in hindsight, but there are some stories you’re in the middle of, that are unfolding right now, and the best thing you can do for those stories is to let them unfold and to play your part in them to the best of your abilities. Come back when that bit of the story has passed, when you can see it as a whole, not as a mysterious future, and then write it. But until you’ve reached that point, just live.
So what do you do when life outpaces your writing? Let it. Take a step back. Write the stories you know, and live the stories you don’t yet understand.