So I am writing my own ending;
I’ll let my pen bleed black or blue.
And I will color in the meaning;
It will be gold and green and true.
And I’ll learn to love
My new discovered proof.
I’ll be grateful for this day.
I will be grateful for each day to come.
"I Will Be Grateful For This Day"
Yesterday, driving home from work with the sun in my eyes, this Bright Eyes song came out from my iPod. I was only half-listening, thinking about what I was going to make (ok, microwave) for dinner, when these lyrics jumped out at me, my thoughts fading to a dull background noise. I began to listen. I mean really listen. What was he really saying? I began to wonder... How much of my own story am I writing? What if I could write my own ending? What would it be?
The idea that our lives are our stories is not a new one, nor is the idea that we can choose how we want our stories to progress. As many times as I've heard this idea before (and, as a writer, loved it), I'm not sure that I've given it the credit it deserves. What it comes down to, I believe, is the idea that we have the choice to own our lives. We can live, going day to day, and let things happen to us or we can choose to live by making things happen to us. Sadly, I've spent a lot of time just letting life happen, accepting what comes my way and assuming that what is is what should be.
It does not have to be this way. I have -- we all have -- a choice to make choices. Every day I choose to wake up, to get dressed, to go to work. That is my daily story. I write it day in and day out and, for the most part, don't think about revisions or edits or plot twists. It gets too messy to think about the what ifs... What if I just quit my job? What if I found a way to survive by doing what it is that I love? What if I just packed my bags and moved back to California? Those what ifs are always swimming around in my mind, but, like I'm reading someone else's book, I keep things as they are. The daily tale remains the same.
I am not alone in this. I know that most of us are doing what I do. Going to our jobs, eating our dinners (or, in my case, pathetic Lean Cuisines), going to bed at a reasonable hour to make sure we get plenty of rest for the next day. In a word, we are this: responsible. We do what we do because we feel it's the right thing to do. We do it to keep our paychecks coming in, our bellies full, and our desires for material objects meant. If we're lucky, we love what we do. In my case, I enjoy it. I cannot truthfully say that it is love that I feel, but it is certainly not hate or annoyance. What I do I do well and doing something well is always rewarding (even if it isn't all that exciting).
This morning I was driving into work and I was getting really excited about some of the songs I just put onto my iPod ("1901" by Phoenix = AMAZING) and I was thinking to myself, "Why am I going to work right now? It's beautiful outside and warm and summer and this music is awesome, but, here I go, in my business suit to a office for meetings and emails and phone calls. Something is not right here." I want to be free -- who doesn't? -- but, more importantly, I want to be writing the story that speaks to me. If I were reading my life all bound and paperbacked, I'd be bored. I'd flip through the pages and think, "Hmmm, maybe I should forget this one..." (something I say only in rare cases when a book is truly boring and/or terribly written). To think about your life in book-form and to realize that you might not want to keep reading is not a good sign.
Of course, always looking for the positive these days, I got to thinking, "What if I could rewrite my life? What would I have done differently?" and, considering I'm still fairly young (ahhh, almost 26!), I asked myself, "What can I do now to make this the kind of story I want to read? How can I craft a life that will have an ending that leaves me with a happy sigh (you know, the one you have when you close a great book and realize that it was just the perfect ending)?" I want to be the writer of my own life.As much as I love the fictitious characters I create in my short stories, novels, and poems, what ultimately is most important to me is my own character and the plot of my own life. So, here's what I'm thinking: I need a plan. I need a plan to set in motion the idea of writing my own life. I want to, as Bright Eyes sings, "color in the meaning/it will be gold and green and true."
How To Write a Life Worth Living
Step One: Rewrite the Past
Rewrite the past?! You must be thinking I'm crazy for creating that step. No one should know better than I do that you can't go back, you can't undo what's already been done. True, yes. We cannot go back. We cannot take a time machine to that fateful day when we feel like things fell apart or we made a mistake or we hurt someone or were hurt. We cannot rewrite the moment itself, but we can rewrite how we view that time in our lives. We can -- yes, we can! -- change how we feel and think about the past. The actions, the truth of what happened, cannot be altered, but we can alter our perception of it, which can make a huge difference in our present lives.
What do I mean by this? And how can it really change the story of our lives? After all, it's already happened so what does thinking about it differently really do? Well, it does a lot in my opinion. I'll give you an example. I can think back on some times in my life when I was really down -- and I mean really down -- and I can remember them as terrible, dark times when the world was against me and no hope was in sight. OR I can look back at them and look for the good that came from them. After all, had I not had some pretty nasty experiences, I never would have sought out therapy and I never would have started getting better and I never would have started this blog and I never would be the happier, more sane person that I am today. Do I know for sure that these things wouldn't have happened without all of the bad stuff? No, I don't. But I can choose to see the bad things -- those things that caused me so much pain and distress -- as catalysts for me becoming the girl I am today.
I can't go back and undo things I've done or things that have been done to me (but, boy, would I like to!), but I can rewrite how I think of them. I can look at the other things that were going on -- for example, during a lot of these rough times I was studying and learning in college and graduate school, which was amazing for a love-learning type like me. I can look at how strong I became from dealing with a lot of situations that other people are never faced with. I can find the good in the bad and that makes the present a much happier, livable place. We can't go back, no, but we can rewrite our current thoughts and feelings. The past is gone. The time is now. And we can choose, right now, to look back at the past any way we want to. Trust me, it does no good to harp on the negative. Look for the good back there in those days that seemed harder and you will find that you are who you are because of what happened then. Good or bad, be grateful for your past and you will be able to focus more on your present.
Step Two: Edit the Present
This is where it gets fun. While we can't change the past or predict the future, we can edit the present life we are living. We have the choice, every single day, to do what we're doing. I would love to sit here and tell you that I'm writing from home because I was so inspired this morning that I quit my job to pursue my dream of being a full-time writer. I would love to say that I'm going to edit all of the negativity out of my life once and for all and live happily ever after every single day of my life. Of course, it's not all that easy. There are real life issues when it comes to editing the present like health insurance and mouths to feed and responsibilities and obligations. If we could all just do what we wanted to do every day, it would be nice, but that's not realistic.
This brings us to the big question: What can you edit out of your present to make your life more of what you want it to be? Believe it or not, there are things you can change to make your world more of what you want it to be. Too often we settle for things as they are, assuming that is how they have to be. They don't. You have the ability to cut things out -- people, places, activities, things -- in order to perfect your story. Just as when you're editing the written word, it's not easy to cut things out.
When I was in high school, I interned at a well-known radio station. One of my jobs was cutting down the stories I recorded into tiny sound bites and writing stories for the air that had to be told in 30 seconds. This was a lot harder than I thought. If you haven't noticed, I'm not the best at keeping it brief. I love long, lengthy paragraphs with lots and lots of words -- not tiny sound bites. Obviously this was a challenging task for me, but it was an important one because it taught me that a lot of words could be cut out while leaving the message intact. This skill helped out a lot when I was in college and, as an English major, I received essay assignments containing the 3 most dreaded words for someone like me: "no longer than..." When I was assigned a paper that could be no longer than ten pages, for example, I used my editing skills from the radio station to cut out details and words and sentences until the text squeezed into that last line on that last page.
This is what we need to do in real life -- edit. When you're writing your life, you can't have everything in the story or it gets cluttered and chaotic. What's important to you? What do you want the plot to be? What do you want the characters to be like? You can't control what others do, but you can control your own actions and you can control the characters you surround yourself with. The past may be gone and the future might be uncertain, but we have the power to choose our now. We can edit out what we don't need in our lives and we can start doing that right now.
Step Three: Outline the Future
The future, as we all know by now, is unknown. No matter how much we plan and prepare and do what we can to control it, we never know what kinds of surprises life is going to hand us. From perfectly wrapped moments to ticking time bombs (and everything in between), life gives us some pretty interesting gifts. We have to do the best we can with what we're given. But that doesn't mean we can't think about the future. Sure, I think living in the now is one of the most important things we can do to make our lives happy, but I'm not all about leaving everything in the future up to chance.
For most things (things that are worthwhile), work is required. Thinking ahead is a good idea. We can't make predictions, but we can make plans. To do this we really need to think. Really, truly think. What do you want your life to be like in 5 years? 10? 20? What do you want to be doing? Who do you want by your side? What kind of lifestyle do you want to have? You can create an outline for your life. You can set goals for yourself and then work towards them. It might not work out perfectly, but it's pretty darn hard to get anywhere near perfection if you don't even try. If you sit back, let life take its course, you'll just float along, maybe happily, maybe not. If you take charge of your life, set goals and make choices and (sometimes) make sacrifices now so that you'll be happy in the future, you're a lot more likely to look back at your story and say, "Yeah, that was a really good read."
It's not easy to make plans sometimes. Even harder is following through with plans that aren't absolutely necessary. For example, for weeks I've been talking about writing an e-book. I've been writing here and there and working on some design layouts, but, because there is no true deadline and no absolute incentive (such as, say, putting food on the table to feed a family), I let myself get lax with this task. I watch TV instead. I dive into a new book when I know I could be working on my own. It's easy to get off track when we set abstract goals for ourselves, which is why an outline is so important. When you write an outline for the future -- when you put it in writing -- you're a lot more likely to see your story unfold. You're more likely to stick to the plan and, therefore, end up with the goals you want to complete completed. It's not easy to do this, but I plan to give it a shot because the last thing I want is to look back on my life and say, "Man, that was pretty badly written," or "Wow, that plot really sucked." I don't want to look back and think, as I sometimes do when reading, "I could have done a much better job writing that."
Lately I've been discussing the topic of control a great deal with my therapist. I want to control situations, myself, and people. When I look back on what I've written here, it might seem like I want to control my life -- rewriting and editing and outlining -- but that's not entirely true. I want to have some control over what happens, but I know that life sometimes has different plans and the unexpected almost always seems to happen. It's like we're given some characters, some vague ideas for plots, a setting and told, "Go! Create something fabulous!" I want to look back and know that I wrote the best story I could with what was given to me. I want to know that I took those plot twists and character flaws in stride, doing the best I could with the material I was given. Don't you want to do the same?
What advice do you have for
writing the story of a life worth living?
How do you use what you're given to make your story
the one you want to look back on and smile at?