What to do if you followed your dream, only to realize it wasn’t what you wanted after all
By Blair Braverman
(SC Note: This piece, originally published in Outside Magazine, contains some great writing advice for all writers but most especially memoirists, which is why I’m reprinting it here. I highlighted the most important piece of advice when writing your own story.)
Six months ago I took the biggest leap of my life: I quit my dead-end job, ended things for good with my on-again-off-again boyfriend, and moved to an off-the-grid cabin in the woods of Montana, with a wood stove and an outhouse. I’ve always loved to write, but never had the time and space to try a real writing project, and I figured big sky country would be the answer. Now I have nothing but space, and time: time to hike, to look at wildlife, to be close to the rhythms of nature, and to write my heart out. My best friend even made me a goodbye present to hang above my desk: a painted sign reading WALDEN II.
My plan for my new life was simple, or so I thought. I’d rise each morning, drink herbal tea, walk on the same trail, watch wildlife, and write down my meditations about the natural world. Then I would come home to my little cabin and have the whole afternoon to work on my book: a combination of memoir and reflection on nature. I have with me the crates of books that I hauled down four flights of stairs from my old apartment, thinking they would inspire me—not just to write, but to work through the trauma that I felt I couldn’t process in my old life. I wanted to find myself here, through a combination of nature and art. But now, day after day, I have nothing interesting to say about nature, and I feel terrified that there is no me to find.
I haven’t written anything. I’m bored with the little trail by my house, and the only wildlife I’ve watched are geese. I don’t know anybody here. My plan was to be self-sufficient, a one-person retreat, but I didn’t plan on the kind of loneliness that would make me want to text my ex. My friends back home—in my old home, anyway—are nothing but supportive, and tell me they can’t wait to read my writing. But I have nothing to show them, and I’m afraid to tell them that I’m not even enjoying a world they often tell me they’re jealous I get to experience. I thought this was what I needed to find my true self, but something is wrong, and I’m afraid it’s me.
I’m writing this to you from the parking lot of the grocery store where I come each week to pick up provisions, my only real trips away from the cabin. This question is already too long, because I don’t want to end this email and start my car and drive back to the place that I guess is my home now. I’m on my phone, which I told myself I’d stop using so I could finally focus on what’s important, but now I don’t trust myself to know what I need to be seeking. Every time I sit down to write, nothing comes. I don’t feel healed by the big sky above me—just empty enough that I might float right up into it. How do I find my way forward?
Who failed? Where is the failure? You went to Montana to live deliberately, à la Hank, and you’ve been deliberate indeed. You’ve started to discover a kind of truth. It’s just not the truth you wanted to find. Which is part of what makes truth—deep emotional truth—annoying, and part of why so many of us avoid it as much as we can. Our lives are hard enough; if only we could be someone else. Someone who could handle things perfectly. We want to be our heroes, but learn, through the process of emulating them, that we are actually just ourselves.
Of course you have writer’s block. What you call your memoir—a chronicle of the kind of feelings you think you should be having in your cabin in the woods—is actually a first-person novel with a main character whose soul looks like a photoshopped version of your own. But you’re a writer, not an actor; it’s not your role to perform on the page. Even if you did—if you wrote gorgeously about the trees you don’t care about, the sunsets you’re tired of watching, and the swirling tea that isn’t that good anyway—it would be a shell of a book and it would not touch readers in the way you want to touch them. It would not move them, and it would not surprise them, because in the process of writing you would have faced nothing real about yourself.
Plenty of people have believed that nature would save them; fewer have the guts to admit when it doesn’t.
I think that a lot of writer’s block comes from trying to write something you don’t really mean. Fiction, memoir, whatever—you have to feel it. You have to care. The work needs to have stakes for you. That’s how you get electricity on the page; your readers feel the risks you’re taking. Readers are smart. They sense, even when they don’t understand. Even when they don’t know. And there are few things more dull on the page than a performance.
You are living an interesting story. The most interesting story, in this case, is the truth: that you’ve gone to the woods to find meaning and you cannot find it. That you are trying every day, without witnesses, without even neighbors, and still you can’t bring yourself to care about wild geese. Plenty of people have believed that nature would save them; fewer have the guts to admit when it doesn’t. And now you’re stuck with the same problems you had before but you don’t even have a toilet. That’s interesting. And it’s funny. I would read that book.
The next time you sit at your typewriter, I want you to be honest. You’re not writing for your friends, who keep offering to read your manuscript. You’re not writing for Thoreau. Forget about readers. Forget about judgment. Wipe that from your mind. All you’re trying to do is write about how you really feel. I know you’re capable of it. After all, you sent me this letter, didn’t you?
Play the proverbial therapist: write a sentence, and then write how you feel about that, and then write how you feel about that. Start a page with “I’ll never admit—” and then fill it. Write an angry letter to whoever hurt you, or an angry letter to yourself. Write a letter to the stupid geese who have not helped you at all. Write down your greatest fear. Look at it. What would happen if it were true? Is it true? Imagine it’s true; what’s your greatest fear now?
Write things you’ll never let anyone read. For every insight, ask yourself why. You wish you could watch television instead of watching your wood stove every night. Why? Because you’re bored. Why? Because your rituals aren’t as meaningful as you thought they’d be, and you want a distraction from your own mind. Why? Because being in your mind reminds you that you’re not the person you thought you were. Why? Who did you think you were? Why did you think that? Why did you need to think it? What are the stakes of losing that illusion? Ask why—write why—until you want to scream. Until you can’t stare at the words anymore, or you fall through a trapdoor into something new. Then go for a walk. Not so boring now, is it? Walk until you’re ready to come back to the page.
Here’s the thing. Life, in all it’s complex and banal detail, is like one of those magic eye pictures. It’s only when you look at it long enough, and in the right way, that the images—the deepest stories—start to appear. But first you need something to look at. That’s what you’re doing now, writing all this down, even the parts of your life that seem tedious, incongruent, even humiliating. You’re creating the field that your real story is going to rise from. You have to stop all this self-editing, because you won’t know what’s part of the story until you know what the story is. And it’s then, and only then, that you can decide whether you want to tell it.
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