Real Problems


There are no stories without problems. Without people arguing and fighting, without lost loved ones, without lonely nights and vengeful villains and failed businesses and alcoholic parents, we storytellers would have nothing to write about. I sometimes feel like I spend most of my days sniffing around for problems like a pig rooting for truffles. I know there’s a treasure in all that trouble, that when I find a good problem I can make something delicious and satisfying with the proper ingredients.

The stories I tell these days are always drawn from my own life, which means I am rooting exclusively through my personal history. Fortunately, there are plenty of problems there. I have mounds of rejection, countless sleepless nights, and five decades of jealousy, despair, boredom, lust, and greed. But I’ve been telling stories about myself for a long time, and occasionally I sit down to write one of pieces and I can’t think of a story I haven’t already told. I feel like the uncle at Thanksgiving who spins the same three yarns year after year.

Those are the moments I foresee a real problem – not one of these tasty story problems buried safely in the past – but one here and now and alive and ready to ruin everything. What if the stories are finite? Fiction writers can just keep making stuff up. I draw from the well of what actually happened. What if I drop my bucket and all I retrieve is a story I’ve told, and a story I’ve told, and a story I’ve told?

That’s a question that’ll ruin a memoirist’s day. Though maybe I’m not so different than fiction writers. After all, most of the fiction I used to write began with this same question: What if? What if a sword gave you everything you wanted? What if the girl you loved married your father? You begin imagining the possibilities and away you go. I think most of my troubles began that way too. I wonder, what if this doesn’t sell? What if she says no? My writer’s imagination hears those two magic words and away I go.

I actually think my worry is pointing me the same place I was headed when I wrote fiction, but by a very different route. All my stories end the same, you see: I’m fine. I have no other ending. It would be boring except that I can always ask, “What if?” I can always imagine a future I don’t want to visit. The moment I do, I’m on a little journey through a life I’d never choose to lead, winding and winding my way back to the one I’m actually living.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.