We live our lives in chapters. This is an appealing metaphor to a writer, of course. We reason with ourselves, as we wander through our daily lives: ‘the only time is now’. It’s true that we need to make the best of each moment, but when we look back, uncanny and unlikely narratives unfold. I think it’s a universal truth that we’d all like our lives to tell a good story. A boring film or a disappointing book will repeat itself, peddle inconsistent ideas, and offer zero payoff. The signs of a focused narrative are, I suppose, echoing themes and motifs, with steady progress throughout. Lessons learned: cycles that reach heddy new climaxes upon each revolution. That makes for a page turner.
In times of crises, we say ‘oh, everything happens for a reason’ in a flailed panic to absolve ourselves of responsibility. But if we’re smart, we take it on. We saddle ourselves with that responsibility and learn important lessons: then, we can retroactively apply meaning. In this sense, we’re all telling stories all of the time. People come and they go; certain places hold significance; some events can feel utterly random or tragic but, later, we’ll find a hidden purpose (think: Chekhov’s gun). We should pay close attention to the ebb and flow of our stories, avoid editing as we go, and say no to dreaming of some imagined sequel.
This is basically how I try to live my life. If I’m doing something in chapter 29 that directly contradicts something I learned in chapter 25 (it’s not good for me, I need more practice, or it hurts other people, for example), I’m not writing a very good story for myself. We’ve no magic reset button either, so we better hope that we’re not writing ourselves into some unforgiving corner packed with contradictions, inconsistent character development, and illogical plot holes. Otherwise, we’ll need to write ourselves back out again (which, if you’ve ever watched Doctor Who, you’ll recognise is no easy task).
If I look to the past, I see distinctive moments of evolution and trauma. Dark chapters where, to be frank, I couldn’t see to write and wanted to throw the pen down. I had a strained childhood and eventually got kicked out. I was made homeless and spent a while bouncing from sofa bed to sofa bed. Thank goodness I crossed paths with people who had fascinating stories in motion – young and old. Thanks to them, I learned to accept the role I had to play in my own story (I came to terms with aspects of my personality that had indirectly caused me chaos – and I nurtured them). With a consistent sense of self, the trials and tribulations that followed were easier to bank, knowing that the lessons being taught would be invaluable at some later date.
I learned to say yes to the ideas that scared me (because the really exciting stuff happens outside my comfort zone) but also to say no (when something goes against my best interests). Ten years ago I moved to London. I was enamoured by it and imagined living there for the rest of my life there. Now, I live in Berlin and can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather call home. I can trace those little moments that lead me here and I’m so proud I had the courage to get up and go. I can say now I know for certain: I have no idea where I’ll be in ten years. But if I continue to write an engaging story, I’m sure whatever happens, I’ll be going in the right direction.
I’m not aiming for some big finish. I don’t believe life’s story ever reaches a point where we can magically say, ‘that’s it, job done’. We’ll write chapter after chapter, like a never-ending British soap opera, hoping that we don’t spend too long cheating on our spouses, murdering the neighbours, or getting into yet another car crash with Phil Mitchell. All we can do is write the next portion of our story better than the last. If I were to reluctantly quote Shakespeare: ‘To every thing there is a season… A time to be born, and a time to die.’ Which is a bit more inspiring than Eastenders.