I had an unusual experience this morning. I emerged partway into morning consciousness and somehow I knew exactly how I was going to feel at the moment of my death. I knew that I would look back and realize my life had been a story that I made up. The dramas that seem so real to me now — the falling in love, the falling out of love, the struggles, the victories — just a story, a dream. It’s not that this idea had never occurred to me before, but I had never understood it at such a deep visceral level.
When I was about five years old, I went to my mother and asked her: “What if this is all a dream? Oh, what am I asking you for? If it’s all a dream, then you’re in it and you wouldn’t know.” Late in life, my mother had her own way of looking at it. When she was in a large group of people, she would think, everyone here is the hero of their very own novel.
I think that’s one of the things that the Internet also teaches us with its millions of bloggers all telling their stories — you can read about people’s travels, you can read about the intimate details of their love lives, you can read about their battles with disease. And on Facebook we’re constantly apprised about what all our friends are up to. We learn what matters to them, and surprise, surprise, it often isn’t what matter to us. Or maybe it is. What’s striking is the enormous variety of “likes” and even passions.
This is why I think writing is a spiritual activity because it enables us to separate ourselves from our stories. We begin to be the witness to our own lives. When we develop the habit of seeing narrative patterns and arcs in our lives and the lives of people around us, we gain some distance from the drama. We begin to realize that we are not our stories. Writing fiction provides us with the added bonus of being able to change perspective. If you can change your perspective in a story, you can do so in your life.
I went to a workshop last week with author and teacher Alan Cohen. He talked about parallel realities. That might sound a little “woo-woo” to some people, but writers get it. Every time we commit words to the page, we’re creating new worlds. When we create these realities, we’re following that early directive: go forth and multiply.
Your assignment should you choose to accept it:
1. Write a five- to ten-page story about a part of your life that you haven’t lived yet.
2. Go to a mall or a fast-food restaurant or the beach and observe. Find someone who looks they might be living an interesting life and write their story. Tell it in the first person.
3. Imagine you are able to leave your body and float above it. Look down. Write what you see.