A Collection of Short Pieces
The Story of Your Life, from Beginning to End
If you’re a parent, I’m sure you’ve experienced how your kids quickly developed an insatiable appetite for stories. How many nights did your three-year-old browbeat you into reading and rereading Goodnight, Moon when all you wanted to do was slug down apple martinis and binge-watch Downton Abbey or House of Cards? We remain story junkies from beginning to end. “We are told stories as children to help us bridge the abyss between waking and sleeping,” John Cheever wrote. “We tell stories to our own children for the same purpose. When I find myself in danger — caught on a stuck ski-lift in a blizzard — I immediately start telling myself stories. I tell myself stories when I am in pain and I expect as I lay dying, I will be telling myself a story in a struggle to make some link between the quick and the defunct.”
It all starts when we’re three or so. That’s when we begin creating our own stories. A story can be extraordinarily brief. Margaret Atwood, one of a number of writers invited by Wired magazine to compose a short story using only six words, turned out a classic, right up there with Emma Bovary: “Longed for him. Got him. Shit.”
Economical, yes. Plenty of emotion packed into those six words. But any toddler can create a story using only three words: “Me go poo.” “Me go poo” is the story a three-year-old can and inevitably will tell more than once before he moves on to a higher level of narrative construction. “Me go poo” may sound primitive, but it fulfills the criteria scholars say define a legitimate story:
1. There’s a protagonist (in this case, “me”).
2. There’s statement of a goal or desire (“to poo” or “have pooed”).
3. There’s an overt action relating to that goal or desire (will go/did go), which leads to the attainment or non-attainment of said goal or desire, which is to poo.
From here on out, decade after decade, stories will not only entertain you, they will explain you to others and to yourself. Your life story will be how you’ll “self-continue,” narrative psychologists say. As long as your memories flow freely, you’re in business. The story will go, there’ll be twists and turning points. But if something happens to disturb memory flow, you’ll have trouble self-continuing. The story will fizzle. Disorientation and worse — complete loss of identity — will play havoc with the story. Which is about as far from a happy ending as anyone can imagine.
Do Writers Think They’re Immortal?
Researching my book, I kept a file on whether writers I admired cared about living on in some way, via their work or through those who knew them. Franz Kafka, not surprisingly, held out neither hope nor desire. “The meaning of life is that it stops,” he said. I ran across that quote in an interview Philip Roth gave to the New York Times. Roth’s reverence for Kafka is well-documented, but whether he signs on to “the meaning of life is that it stops” is hard to say. After Roth announced that he was retiring from novel-writing, he went back and reread every word of his thirty-plus books. He wanted to find out if he’d “wasted his time,” he said. The verdict: “I did the best I could with what I had,” Roth said, echoing another hero of his, boxer Joe Louis.
Flannery O’Connor, who never married, spent her too-short life living with her mother in Milledgeville, Georgia, maintained that she couldn’t imagine anyone taking an interest in her life, now or later. “Lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy,” she said. On the other hand, she once confided in a letter to a lifelong correspondent: “It is a pity I can’t receive my own letters. If they produce as much wholehearted approval at their destination as they do at their source, they should … keep my memory alive and healthy.”
Martin Amis, of all people, gave what I thought was the most satisfying answer when asked about the future value of his work and whether he’d somehow live on as a result. “If I die tomorrow,” Amis said, “at least my children…will have a very good idea of what I was like, of what my mind was like, because they will be able to read my books. So maybe there is an immortalizing principle at work even if it’s just for your children. Even if they’ve forgotten you physically, they could never say that they didn’t know what their father was like.”
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Why I No Longer Say I Want My Kids to Be Happy
One night at party, I was talking to a woman about the book project I was working on. At the center of it, a daunting question: What does it take to be happy over the long haul? Seeking an answer to that elusive riddle, I’d gone around asking women and men of all ages to tell me their life stories. I’d poke and pry: Are you feeling good about your life so far? What’s been the most gratifying chapter? The least? What would make you truly happy going forward?
The woman at the party was game to play along. She recounted a number of ups and downs, filled me in on her hopes and disappointments. Then, without warning, she turned the tables and started grilling me. She wondered whether I’d learned anything from all this burrowing into other people’s life stories.
“Have conversations like this changed you in any way?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” I told her. “I used to say that all I want for my kids is that they grow up to be happy. Now I don’t say that anymore.”
I can only guess at what she made of that comment. She stared back. Okay, she glowered back. Then our hostess called us in to dinner and I never had a chance to explain. So in the hope that she’s reading this, and to get myself off the hook, here goes:
First, please understand that I’m not heartless. I love my kids. I adore my kids. I would do everything in my power to allay any suffering that comes their way, which is how it’s been right from the start. When my kids were little (they’re now 24 and 26), the wispiest cloud drifting across their bright, shining faces was enough to darken my day. Return from a business trip without presents for them? Unimaginable. There were occasions — I’m not proud of this — that I’d abruptly leave an out-of-town business meeting so I could race around town in search of the latest Batman action figure or American Girl accessory, frenetic detours that nearly caused me to miss a flight or two. A risk worth taking, however. Elevated blood pressure was a small price to pay for the heartbreak I’d experience were I to walk through the door empty-handed.
So you’ll just have to trust me on this: had you asked, up until recently, what I most fervently desired for those two kids, I’d have told you flat-out: I want them to be happy — unremittingly and bountifully happy now and forever. (Healthy, too, of course, but that goes without saying.)
Why, then, have I changed my tune?
Part of it goes back a long way. Maybe you can relate. Think back to when you were a teenager (not always pleasant, I know). If you were anything like me, there were probably times when you felt lost and confused — on a Friday night, say, alone in your room, your only company a paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies, or something else that prompted you to grapple with life’s heavy shit: Why was I born? What does it all mean? Perhaps you also asked yourself a question that went right to core of of your teenage soul: was it better to be like you, plumbing the meaning of existence alone in your room, or like them, the cool kids with their tooth-pasty smiles, sharp clothes, the kids who never had to grovel for a prom date? Kids like that never brooded in the rooms, or so it seemed to me. Why didn’t they? Because they didn’t overthink things. Life was simple. The point was to have a good time. It was easy to hate those kids.
For years, I chalked those evenings up to the fog of adolescent insecurity. But I understand now that I was groping blindly with an issue that has confounded philosophers as far back as the ancient Greeks:
Is it possible to live a happy life if one doesn’t achieve a meaningful life?
The issue continues to spark discussion in academic journals. Some philosophers argue that unless we figure out what’s deeply fulfilling to us, there’s little chance that we’ll wind up happy, certainly not for very long.
And that until we learn how to fight off life’s curveballs, and/or attach ourselves to something larger than ourselves, sooner or later we’ll wind up feeling dissatisfied, anxious, and vaguely or colossally bored with life — i.e., we won’t be happy. Other thinkers quibble a bit, acknowledging that having a calling and the right stuff to weather crises are important, but they’re merely two ingredients that make up the happiness pie. The full recipe also calls for a dollop or two of pleasure, a dose of absorbing activity, and a dash of personal achievement and material reward now and then. Voilà, happiness a la mode!
But it wasn’t just this high-toned philosophizing that prompted me to change my tune about what I want for my kids. It also had to do with those conversations I was having, my poking and prying into other people’s life stories. The women and men who told me that they were truly happy were invariably happy for one or several of a small number of reasons:
They’d made it through adversity, mustering strength against what had seemed like long odds.
Or they’d found a way to be creative, professionally or in connection with a leisure-time passion.
Or they’d attached themselves to a cause, a calling of some sort— a commitment to their community, or to a church, school, or Planet Earth.
Or they were deeply devoted to another human being.
Or they were doing something — mentoring, nurturing, guiding, teaching — which would make a positive difference in the future lives of others.
When I added it all up, those who said they were happy had discovered or achieved something that offered profound sense of meaningfulness.
So — what do I want for my kids, and would I have said to that woman at the party?
I want them to lead meaningful lives.
And how might they accomplish that?
By reaching beyond themselves to something larger — “self-transcendence,” as Viktor Frankl called it in his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning. Happiness, Frankl said, isn’t to be thought of as an end. Happiness is a by-product. It derives from doing meaningful things and engaging in meaningful relationships. And while the determined pursuit of a meaningful life won’t guarantee my kids a lifetime of sunny happiness, it’s the surest way to kick open the door.
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What a Diary Can Do that Social Media Can’t
Once and only once in my life did I keep a personal journal. It was twenty-five years ago. I started entering notes the day my son was born and stopped two years after that, shortly after my daughter was born. No one’s ever read my diary, no one’s even known about it until now. I wasn’t even sure that it still existed until I recently discovered that it was preserved in an ancient folder on my current hard drive. The folder had traveled through time and space, nesting unobserved in seven or eight successive computers, transferred from desktop to laptop to desktop to laptop, surviving at least a dozen Apple operating-system upgrades. It survived Steve Jobs himself.“Some moments are nice, some are nicer, some are even worth writing about,” Charles Bukowski wrote in a poem. That’s precisely what I was doing in that diary: writing down moments that seemed worth writing about at the time.
That I even thought to go looking for the all but forgotten journal had to do with the book I was researching. The book is about how we draw on memories to make sense of ourselves. Curious about why we choose some memories and not others, I went around asking people whether they kept a written record of certain thoughts so as not to forget about them when building their narrative.
Some people who’ve never kept a diary struck me as pigheaded. They’re channeling Rudyard Kipling, who once boasted that if something isn’t worth remembering, it’s not worth writing down. Others told me that they’d like to keep a journal but simply don’t have the time. Still others said they had nothing much to say to a diary, that their day-to-day life was humdrum and besides, there were plenty of other places — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where they can dump half-baked thoughts. But keeping a journal and posting on social media, however, are two different things, I tried to point out. With a journal, your observations don’t scroll out of existence two seconds after you record them. They’re linked one to the next, resulting in an open-ended, running account uninterrupted by geo-targeted ads or the quotidian bleats of others. There’s also plenty of stuff that we’d rather not share with others — not on Facebook or Twitter, not anywhere — but they’re worth preserving. And there’s stuff we don’t fully understand and can’t easily put into words. A diary doesn’t care how you say something. A diary’s not judgmental. Nothing’s not important enough. Everything’s not unimportant until time proves it fatuous or incomprehensible.
One person told me she never kept a journal because writing doesn’t come easily for her — as if that matters. Virginia Woolf, whose lifelong diary stretches across thirty-eight handwritten volumes, said that how a private diary’s written “doesn’t count.” Reading through one of her own journals, she confided that she was “much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles.” My modest seventy-page diary jerks intolerably over the cobbles as if yanked along in a little red Radio Flyer. Literary quality? Somewhere between prosaic and cringe-worthy, no big deal since I never imagined the sentences would ever see the light of day.
Then there are many out there who think diaries are only for people who’ve led an epic life such as Anne Frank’s, or a train wreck of a life like Bridget Jones’s. They’re totally missing the point. There’s no correlation between how singular a life is and how interesting the diary. A boring life can make for a fascinating diary, and a fascinating life can make for a boring diary.George Orwell kept one of the most mundane diaries imaginable: shopping lists, daily weather summaries, vegetable-growing reports, speculation on what may have caused his goat’s loose bowels.
Finally, there are people who think that only the lonely keep diaries. Those who do, Joan Didion said, “are a different breed altogether… anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” Didion was reaching for effect. She herself kept a journal because she couldn’t bear the thought of wasting so much as “a single observation.”A “thrifty virtue,” she called it.
Here, though, are the two best reasons to keep a diary, I realized after rediscovering my own and reflecting on what others said about theirs. First, it’s a way to create who you are. So remarked Susan Sontag, whose posthumously published diaries recount in intimate detail her life as a public intellectual and generally unsatisfied wife, mother, and lover. “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself,” Sontag confided to her diary. Absolutely, I said to myself when I read that. I launched my short-lived journal to create myself — create myself as a father. Or re-create whatever self I’d been into a substantially revised self, this one having one, and then another, young soul who’d be dependent on me, at least for a while.
And here’s the other good reason to keep a diary:
Let’s say you’re jogging through the park one day and you spy a mighty oak tree. Big deal. A tree’s a tree. Except this time, for some inexplicable reason, you see a tree and you think to yourself: A tree is strong. A tree is stalwart. You’re then hit with the blinding insight that a tree speaks to the meaning of life — whereupon you’re filled with rapturous joy that you are alive at that very moment.
Now, granted, it’s the kind of borderline-deranged insight a poet might have. In fact, Hermann Hesse had that exact borderline-deranged insight, even went to the trouble of writing it down: “A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.”
But let’s say that you had that insight. You can do one of two things with it. You can make a note about how strong and stalwart trees are, or you can make a mental note of it, betting that the mental note will be appropriately tagged and stored in your memory archive, to be retrieved as needed when you’re building your personal narrative. Why go to the trouble of hauling down your journal from inside the dropped ceiling tile? or typing the tree epiphany into your iPad? Because a diary serves as a backup vault. Much as we assume we’ll remember things that strike us as interesting or inspiring, we don’t. We’re busy and easily distracted. Most things that strike us as interesting or inspiring go in one ear and out the other. Moreover, studies show that we routinely and predictably under-appreciate certain events when they happen. And that events, when recalled in a different mood or another context, mean something entirely unexpected. When jotted down in a journal, however, the insight about the tree is locked and loaded for future use. In time it may connect to another insight about — I don’t know, gnats. Not how annoying gnats are, but how joyfully they take to the air on a gentle summer night, which suggests that even gnats have some halfway legitimate reason to exist.
Now you’ve got a theme going, don’t you see? How meaningful the world is on a quiet evening when there’s nothing going on, except everything is going on. The whole damn world’s swarming under the watchful security of stalwart trees. (Or something like that, I’m not a poet.) The point is, you’re making connections you hadn’t made before. How there’s meaning, purpose, and beauty in nature, which is not only comforting, it may even provide you with the reason you’re here in the first place.
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"The point. The meaning of your life. Do you ever think about that?"
Some people get peevish when I ask that question. They say they’re too busy surviving to gaze at their navels. Indeed. The real wealth of ninety-percent of American families has been declining for more than a decade. Single parents and working couples struggle to find time to spend with their kids. Millions of middle-agers are woefully short of having nearly enough to retire.
“What do you mean, ‘the point’?” one woman demanded to know. When I explained, she reacted as if I’d said I was compiling a guide to artisanal cheeses. “Oh,” she exclaimed in a startlingly loud voice. “The meaning life! How timely!”
But she was spot on. The point is timely. It’s been timely since time began, I wanted to shout. I could have worked up a sweaty counter-offensive but held back. I could have mentioned that the point was timely for Adam and Eve the instant they bit into the apple. It was timely back when we wrote with sticks and stones, when anonymous Mesopotamians carved The Epic of Gilgamesh onto a clay slab: “The life you seek, you will never find.” “Sorrow enters my heart. I am afraid of death” It was timely when Lao Tzu calligraphed the Tao Te Ching (“Heaven and earth are not sentimental; they regard all things as dispensable.”) It was timely for the Greeks who, if they made it out of infancy alive, went on to live almost as long as we do. It was timely when Christ returned to show us the Way. It was no less timely two millennia later when Nietzsche announced God was dead (“Do we not feel the breath of empty space? How shall we comfort ourselves?”) And timely when Bertrand Russell, philosopher/mathematician/activist/confirmed atheist, declared in his autobiography that the point was three things rolled together: love, because love relieves loneliness; knowledge, because knowledge enables us (in theory) to know how the universe works; empathy, because empathy allows us to hear the cries of pain of the oppressed in a world of poverty and pain. It was still timely when TIME magazine reminded us God was still dead on its famous 1966 cover. And it was as timely as ever two years after that when, on the very first page, theWhole Earth Catalog echoed what Nietzsche had said a century prior: “We are as Gods, and might as well get good at it….”
So, yes, it’s timely.
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Stories on the Brain
For the past few years I’ve had stories on the brain, which is nothing new. For the better part of twenty years, as an editor at Esquire magazine, I was up to my eyeballs in stories: commissioning them, editing them, celebrating them when they worked, mourning them when they fizzled. I now realize that everyone I’ve ever known is an evolving story. Just the other night at a dinner party, I glanced around the table and realized I was in the company of a soap opera, a farce, a chick flick, and an incessantly chatty shaggy dog story with no clue as to where it was going. The farce and the chick flick drank too much, the soap opera sobbed a little, the shaggy dog went on and on. But it turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant evening — though between you and me there were times I thought it would be better to be home in bed with a good book.
You have your life story, I have mine. Those stories are us. Each is unique. Even if the events, relationships, and characters in your story were exactly the same as those in mine, our stories would be very different. If we spent every day of our lives welded at the hip, they’d still be different because we’d remember things differently.
We know the details of our stories like the back of our hand: each is the complete, unabridged account of how we came to be here at this very moment. We know exactly how the story begins and whether it’s gone uphill or downhill. We know whether it’s a sad or happy story. We know which parts are interesting and which put us to sleep. We know the events and characters we’d delete if we possibly could. Our stories begin with our earliest memories and unfold from there: our hopes and dreams are included in the story; our victories and disappointments; our love affairs won and lost. Every secret of ours is there. So are our dreams, the ones we remember.
But here’s the kicker: each of our stories remains an enduring mystery story. Because there’s one thing we don’t know and we may not want to know even if we could — how and where the story ends.
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