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Life Is Not A Story

As an English major, I read and analyzed fiction every day during college. So much so that when things happened in my life -- big, upsetting, unexplainable things -- I struggled to analyze them. What was the narrative purpose of this breakup? If I studied abroad, how would that further my character? I was confusing myself, trying to force my life into a neat story arc.

But every time I tried to understand myself as a character or my life as a trajectory that should have a beginning, a central conflict, and a conclusion, I set myself up for failure. Thinking of my life that way made me unhappy; it simply didn't work.

It didn't work because life isn't a story. We write stories to make sense of life.

There have been a few important pieces/posts published lately that have touched on the importance of recognizing that we are all in the middle of our own struggles. Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh's hugely popular webcomic blog and as of last week a graphic novel, touched millions when Brosh depicted living with depression and slowly finding a way to survive, day after day. Linda Holmes, writer of NPR's Monkey See blog, recently wrote up a post about Hyperbole and a Half, tying Brosh's confessional illustrations to Donald Glover's recent honesty about struggles with depression in his life. Holmes makes the point that, though we're all in the middle of our journey, we are unused to seeing the struggle without the solution, the cure, the happy ending. Holmes calls this "the memoir model":
It's very sterile and very misleading to hear about battles only from people who either have already won or at least have already experienced the stability of intermediate victories. It presents a false sense of how hard those battles are. It understates the perilous sense of being in the middle of them. It understates how scary they are.
In a recent John Green Vlogbrothers video, he discusses living with depression over many years:
[W]ith a million seconds of perspective, or I guess 365 million seconds, I see a life that I am now very grateful to have beginning to happen. But I didn't know that then, Hank. All I knew was that I was a little less hopeless than I had been. You can't know what an experience will mean to future you, until you are future you. You need millions of seconds of perspective, which ultimately only time can buy.
There was no instant solution, no obvious turning point where the musical soundtrack swelled and John Green was suddenly cured of sadness or conflict forever. His life isn't a story; he writes stories to make sense of his life. So does Allie Brosh, so does Donald Glover, so does Linda Holmes. So do I, and so do you.

When you're in the middle of drafting a new book it can be hard to see your book, and yourself, as a work in progress. Often not being 'done' can feel like failure. It isn't -- your work is ever-changing, ever-evolving, just like your life and your journey. Embrace it and keep going!

"Middle Age-road" by Sten. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Sarah Enni

Sarah is a young adult author and host of the First Draft podcast. She is represented by Sarah Burnes at The Gernert Company.

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  1. Thank you. I suffer this particular feeling a lot. Two years ago, I attended my first WriteOnCon, sure that the next WriteOnCon, my current WIP would be ready to pitch. But it wasn't. Okay, then, this year's WriteOnCon...happened to be the day when I decided, unofficially, that the current WIP would be temporarily shelved for mental sanity, and the new WIP would be focused on. I was determined to be published before I hit my twenties - boom, twenty-one and still working my way there. It's hard for me sometimes to not curl up in a ball and just give up.

  2. Great post Sarah! We all need a little perspective sometimes :)

  3. I watched the vlogbrothers video a few days ago and thought it was great! But so was this post! Sometimes we all have tendency to forget these things, and they are very important to keep in mind. This is really helpful and insightful!

  4. So lovely and full of truth. Thank you, Sarah.

  5. I have suffered a lot from depression. Even though it was only recently, I can't really remember much, just that I felt empty, like I was this zombie that moved around but didn't have a soul. I would read my favourite books and watch my favourite movies, but not care about what happened in them, I would eat, but hardly taste food. And the thing I would repeat over and over was: "I belong in a book. I hate the real world. I want to live in a book."
    Now, I'm not depressed any more, but I still have that need to become fiction. I need a beginning, a middle, an end, a happily ever after. I need to be the hero. Instead, I'm just the girl who gets teased at school because she reads and writes books. What they don't realize is that books made me who I am, and so when people laugh at me for reading, they're laughing at me for who I am.
    But I have come to realize that real life will never be the great work of fiction I want it to be, that I can't be the hero that everybody loves. I just hope that one day I will live a life where I don't mind being completely submerged in reality.


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Item Reviewed: Life Is Not A Story Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Sarah Enni