Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What's your story?

I finally have a satisfactory reply to the standard social question, "What do you do?" That question, whether I like it or not, is indirectly asking, "Who are you?" in a soundbite. In other words, give me the paraphrased, let-me-look-you-up-and-down-in-a-quick-glance answer. Well, my answer is, I'm a writer.

While this may seem like stating the obvious to you, like commenting, "It rains in Seattle," to me it's a wonderful, liberating breakthrough statement about myself. On the outside, I look pretty calm and collected when I utter these words, but on the inside, I am jumping and clicking my heels together in mid-air. And there too many reasons this is so, but I'll only jump into a few of them right now. And contrary to how it may look, I'm not feeling liberated by some title that defines me. No, I'm over being defined by what I do (it was sooo last decade); it's actually much bigger and more exciting than that.

I've been reading some books lately about the writing process and being a writer, from people that have been doing this for years. One of these authors, Anne Lamott, describes how some novelists will sit down with a fixed idea of a character and how this character will behave and who this character will be by the end of the story. But in the process, these authors often become frustrated or stuck, or their story feels forced or stagnant, because their writing is not allowed to flow naturally and spontaneously where it wants to go. The truly gifted writers, Anne says, are the ones who have an idea of the type of character they want to develop, but they let that development happen creatively, taking twists and turns and following where it leads, until at the end of the story, they often have a character who is much different than they had originally intended creating. A character with more dimension and depth than they had planned. These authors have to be willing to be flexible and risk following the creative lead of their writing, instead of merely the logic of their outlines.

And then there are us, the characters as well as the (co)authors. We have a story to write, but in which way do we write? Do our stories flow from very rigid, planned outlines? On the other extreme, do we follow every whim that blows on the wind? Or do we have an intention that we seek to write and live every day, but we surrender to the freedom of that day and whatever it may hold, and chase after it with curiosity and courage and wisdom? What kind of characters are we allowing ourselves to be? Do we think we know who we will be at the end of the story, or are we willing to be surprised by the journey and how we develop?

One of my huge blindspots in my early to late twenties was depending on the not-yet to define my character, to tell my story. My story was essentially, "One day, I will do this," or "In the future, I will be this." After my Papa's death, my story seemed to fail miserably, and essentially became, "In the past, I..." or "I don't know my story anymore because this is what happened to me." I didn't know how to be the character whose story was beautifully wrapped up in the telling of the moment. "Today this is who I am."

And today, I am a writer. It's not the whole of who I am, but it's a more representative description of who I am than, "I'm a barista at Starbucks." Being a barista at Starbucks funds my passion to write and allows me to further develop into the type of character I'd like to be, not knowing what twists and turns that will take or what the finished product will look like.

Isn't that true of so many things, though? It is for me, at least. I think of my relationship with Ricardo. People like to ask, "Do you think he's 'the One'?" Or, I love this one: "Can you picture yourself with him for the rest of your life, more than any other man you've met?" I'm thirty, and I'll be honest, I've been in love before. And I was pretty quick to answer those questions with confidence for more than one guy. I was so eager, really, to answer those questions, as if I had a foolproof answer. Problem was, though I loved them, those guys weren't a part of my story for as long as I thought they'd be. And I'm not sorry for that, for they truly shaped my character, but it does leave me a more cautious storyteller.

It seems to cause some discomfort or confusion in people when I respond honestly to these perfectly normal questions like the ones above, but I'm making an intentional effort not to live in what-ifs anymore. The most honest answer I can give to these questions - and really, most questions right now - is that I can't speak for what the future will look like, but today, for instance, I'm falling in love with Ricardo and enjoying the ride, bumpy and smooth. And that's enough for me at this moment. Maybe my answer will change tomorrow or six months from now, and I'll be more sure of myself then, but I'm quite content at this point to rest in the reality of today and leave the what-ifs to the real Author.

If we just sit with that, let it seep from the soles of our feet to the souls of our very being, I think we would find ourselves reverberating with a joy and liberation that makes us want to dance and sing our stories every day, come what may. For our stories are fluid and vibrant like a river, ever changing, ever flowing, never remaining in the same place, unless we build a dam and try to contain them. Let them flow.


  1. Thank you for a wonderful post! It was really refreshing, made me think of what I say when Im asked the same question...heres my answer
    I do nothing and everything all day, I wear many hats and today I'm wearing my_____ hat.

  2. Hmm, this is thought provoking. Fodder for a blog post I think. I hate the question "What do you do?" because my answer is I am just a Mom. I want to keep on typing, but your comment section is probably not the space to do it in. So maybe next week's Imperfect Prose will have the rest of the story. haha I am really enjoying your blog.