I’m not against self-affirmation on principle. Many people benefit from empowering messages that remind them of their intrinsic worth. However, that isn’t the sort of bromide that works with my particular chemistry. I want to understand what to do, not how to feel. Even though I might enjoy hearing that I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me, that news doesn’t give me tactical guidance on how to live my life.
So when I tell you that “We are all authors of our own lives” – I don’t mean to trumpet the primacy of your own role in shaping your destiny, even though that’s a useful bit of affirmation. I mean for you to think about the process of authorship, the task of writing a story from both facts and fantasy over many years.
Whether you realize it or not, you carry around a story in your head about who you are. You draft, write and rewrite your internal explanation of the kind of person you are, the character you have, the things you will and will not do. This work of self-conception is the greatest novel ever written, or at least it should be for you.
Early on, very little of your story is constrained by actual events, since you’re too young to have been in all of the situations you anticipate that you’ll experience. You have the freedom of your imagination, and you write your story based on what you’ve seen in your family, friends and others in life and fiction. You’ll imagine, for example, that you’re just like your dad, or not at all like your mom, or a bit like Al Pacino in Scarface, or a lot like Lindsey Lohan on Twitter. Then as you grow older, your story becomes a lot more personalized to you, based more on your experiences and less on your aspirations.
You have years, maybe decades, to write your beautiful story of who you are, and then something happens. It may be one traumatic event, or a series of little events that are only clearly related in retrospect – but it’s something that happens that doesn’t fit into the story you’ve been spending your whole life on to that point. You thought you were a good guy, but then you did something that was undeniably bad. You thought you were an honest woman, but then you’re confronted with your repeated pattern of little lies.
You race back to your story, flipping madly through the pages of the Book of You. Who is this person in this story? Who is this stranger living this life, holding this tattered book in shaky hands? Can these possibly be the same person? Faced with this disconnect between your life’s work as an author, and the actual facts of your life, you have two choices: You can rewrite your story to fit the facts, or you can rewrite the facts to fit your story.
Perhaps this is the point where I’m supposed to say that the facts are sacrosanct, and your job as an author is to fit the story to the facts. But no: I said you were an author, I didn’t say you were a journalist, and I can’t presume to tell you what kind of story you’re writing. You have to make the choice that satisfies your art as the author of your own life.
Maybe you’ll just choose straightforward reporting, because you do want to match the story exactly to the facts. Or you might be like Mark Twain, writing fiction truer than fact; or Jack Kerouac, making facts into truthful fiction. I wouldn’t advise going full-on into fantasy, with complete disregard for any events from reality. Not because it’s wrong, but because all of the best fantasies are rooted in something real. As an author, you’re an artist, and art without truth is trivial, and you don’t want your life to be trivial.
Finally, be aware that we are all engaged in these acts of authorship. You can get very far in understanding other people if you think about the story they’ve written in their own heads, and observe what they do with facts that don’t match the story.