I will try to work out the words for this thing I thought. Bear with me.
I was telling my friend about this memoir I’m editing. I started working with the writer last spring, when he had a lot of words that made up individual stories that lacked a unifying theme or a coherent narrative. He’d just written down all his stories, the sort of stories you’d tell an old friend or a new one you happened up beside at the bar. They were full of repetition because in his mind each of them stood alone, so he had to explain things anew each time. He asked me to help him make it into a book.
It was a wonderful challenge. As I read, my mind hopping from one era of his life to another and back again (because he’d arranged the stories not chronologically but with “the most interesting first, in case people got bored”) I tried to unravel the tangles and find out what happened to him from the beginning to where he is now. And I began to see themes emerging, silver threads gleaming from the page, begging to be picked up and drawn out, explored, rounded.
From where he is, it’s a bunch of stories. My job is to make it a narrative. Because, when you’re in your life, you can’t see the wood for the trees. Of course you can’t. Even at the end of it, looking back, it might take someone else, someone like me, to find your threads and pull on them to make something that feels whole and satisfying. I might be wrong, of course, and need to be set right: I might see threads that aren’t really there, make something out of almost nothing – or I might see things he never even knew about until I bring them up, glittering, a vein of ore that was buried.
It’s so satisfying to begin at the end and have the opportunity to impose an order on things. In my own writing, I have to start from nothing and create something. I might know where the end is going to be, but I don’t know how I’ll get there. I just have to write to find out, which is what I’m doing at the moment – I’m getting towards the end of a first draft that right now is terrible, to my eyes, but once it’s there I can make it better. Before it existed, there was nothing to fix.
And when it’s my life instead of my writing – my parenting life, for example – it’s so hard to see the path when you’re on it. You can look back and discern the road that brought you here, in one straight line or a winding one, but from where I am right now there are a myriad of options, just like with fiction, and I don’t even know where I’m going. Sometimes you don’t even feel like you’re moving; you’re just standing still and trying not to collapse under the weight of all the things the world is throwing at you, like a deluge, a hail of trash and random items falling on your head. One foot in front of another is enough achievement, never mind looking ahead and picking a direction. Who’s steering this thing? Am I supposed to be in control?
So I suppose the moral is that in my writing, I am in control. I can steer along the path both backwards and forwards until I make whatever needs to happen happen, because fiction is tidy and satisfying that way. In my editing, I can take pleasure in helping my client shape his many stories into a single narrative that tells of a life he recognizes as his and yet is in many ways tidier, more like fiction. But in my own life – my real life, unadorned, unedited – all I can do is I can just keep plodding and remember to look up now and then and try to see a little way ahead, pivot a bit, keep paddling.