On long messy first drafts

Life is one long messy first draft. The narrative arc is, if you are lucky, a long one.

It struck me today: this is why I like writing fiction. It allows me to polish dialogue, to give my characters just the right words and actions to drive the story to its conclusion. Yes, fictional characters make messes of their lives. Otherwise, they’d be pretty dull.

But their missteps are choreographed, like a ballet. Effective fictional characters— the likeable ones, anyway—are entertaining and engaging, making colossal mistakes, then finding their way to a better place. Good fiction often pivots on that magical quality of transformation. I think that’s what makes me want to run backward sometimes. If only I could edit out my circular meanderings. Things would happen faster, more dramatically. Like watching slow-motion videos of flowers unfurling. Look! The ugly bulb has pushed through the heavy earth and burst into bloom, right before our eyes.

In real life, flowers wilt. Flowers smell. Flowers die. Sometimes they fail to bloom, and sometimes they are crushed by a booted heel at their tenderest, and never quite recover. Real people, myself included, can be mean, can be clueless, can be lost, can be stupid—hence the urge to wish for a really, really big red pen.

I see now that I’ve been wishing I could workshop my life story. It’s a time-sucking trap. I mean, what IF I’d begun writing in earnest at thirty, or forty? How much better would I be by now? What if I’d known which things to worry about and which things to let run their course? (Oh so plain now, in hindsight!)

What if I’d learned sooner that so many of the obligations and material things I thought I were vital to a good life were actually entirely unimportant to happiness; in fact, wanting them drove me to work harder and lose sight of more vital concerns and joys.

As my dog-owning friends say when their dogs pick up something unhealthy: “leave it!”

This is the year for me to let go of that unhealthy yet seductive urge to hold onto the past, to let go of wishing I’d done this or that differently. It’s time to focus on the now, to save the red pen for work, and let life unfold moment by moment—messy as hell, sweet and imperfect.

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Elaine Olund

I'm a writer, artist and designer who thinks way too much, and tries to see the beauty in the world.

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