It’s been a while since I’ve given good time to writing, but it really is my favorite passion. No matter how many leadership roles I’ve had, no matter how many math classes I’ve taken, no matter how many electives I’ve indulged in–nothing brings me back to myself like writing does. I often compare words to blood, the act of writing itself to bleeding–blood-letting, if you will, that cathartic process of expelling the bad humors while holding onto the good.
This week I’m continuing my series of writing exercises and wrapping up the chapter on what makes a story. The exercise is simple: Look back at opportunities not taken. I guess often we look at the choices we’ve made that lead somewhere, but forget the choices that did the opposite–those choices that led nowhere. In stories, however, it’s those choices that make something happen that we follow to the end. If we can identify those choices that cause the story to stop, we can focus on writing about those choices that take us places.
I remember it was just the Wednesday before last that my mom and I had stopped at a Mexican restaurant near school to grab lunch between classes and work. As we were finishing our plates, a group of three guys came in and sat at the table next to ours. Eavesdropping was not my intent, but when I heard mention of Amendment 1, my ears tuned into the conversation at the other table.
They were going back and forth, just the two of them at first, and the one was talking about how he’s against the bill. When he mentioned that it could strip away domestic violence protection from women across the state, I felt like fistpumping–that there should be someone so informed of the dangers of this amendment just randomly walked in from the street to the same place I was eating lunch, on the same day? I was thrilled.
When we finished eating, I wanted to walk up to them and let them know I also opposed the amendment. I wanted to lend my support and help encourage others to vote–or if they had already decided to vote, help to show the camaraderie and sense of community that really compels people to act, even when other things come up. Instead I walked past their table. I didn’t even give them a second glance. I just moved past as my stomach sank, as I resigned myself to silence, reaffirmed my shyness. They’ve already decided to vote against it, I told myself. It’d just be awkward if I went up to them and said thanks.
So I did nothing. Like Daniel did nothing. It felt awful.
What’s worse, it wasn’t the only time. I’ve ran into guys I’ve wanted to speak to–and not just for reasons of the Amendment. Like Daniel, I’ve been smitten. I’ve wanted to speak to people, make new connections, make new friends. Instead, I sew my mouth shut and turn off inside. I fail to act on my own needs for the fear that they’ll go unmet–and yet, somehow, in this skewed sense of the world, my inability to act toward something is supposed to ensure these same needs will be fulfilled? Sometimes I don’t even try to understand myself.
It’s not all failure, however. I have had those moments when despite every muscle, every bone, ever part of my body pushing me away, I have moved forward. Only a short while ago, at a conference, I moved in for those first few uneasy words where I stumbled over my tongue and wasn’t sure what I was saying. And then, later, I had the courage, the audacity, the foolishness if you will, to throw my arm over his shoulders and just see what he’d do. And you know what he did? He put his arm around mine.
Plots aren’t problems unless the story stops. I should contextualize that: Plots are only a problem when the story stops before it’s supposed to. If characters don’t grow, if they don’t step outside their comfort zones at one time or another, if they don’t act when it’s important, those stories that should be told will never be heard.
Characters have it good, though, they have it luckier than we do. They can dance across the backspace button and bounce repeatedly upon “delete” until all their missed opportunities are knocking again-and then they can plunge forward in a bloody mess of inspiration and open that door at last. But we’re only human. We can’t undue history; we can’t unmake our choices. Once done, it’s done. There’s only ever turning the page on our mistakes, not rewriting them.
Sometimes I think I live vicariously through my characters. Other times I just hope to learn from them. If I wrote them, if I empowered them with the courage to act, that power to take a risk and run with it wherever it leads, I know somewhere, deep inside me, I’ve got that same bravery bubbling up until I’m ready for it to come out. I just need to find it, let it rise up inside me, and then act on it. If writing brings this power to my fingertips, then I shall only let my hands guide me. Last time I let them lead me, they lead me well.