The Non-Narrative Life

When I taught writing at Santa Monica college, I warned my students that the first draft would never be a finished story. Finding their way through to the finish is always improvisational, often surprising, and sometimes flecked with brilliance. The more complex the story, the more likely to have false starts and needless meanderings. Even a meticulously mapped plot will come up against a suddenly vivid character or unexpected inspiration that will alter the planned trajectory.

I have a friend who won’t go on to sentence two of a story until she has perfected sentence one. If sentence ten alters what needs to come before, she goes back to sentence one rather than move on. If it happens again at sentence eleven, she goes back before she goes on. She’s never finished her book, but she may. All her work rewriting, however, won’t prevent the last sentence from requiring her to do what another, less meticulous writer, would have to do on reaching the end; go back and massage the narrative into a coherent and satisfying story.

Because only from the end looking back can writers really see where the story was aiming. Only from the end will the weave of events and meaning leading up to the gestalt of closure be visible. Then and only then could they edit effectively, bringing events into an aligned, meaningful narrative. Push forward through the chaotic jungle of infinite possibility to a satisfying end, and then go back and start again, pruning the briars and laying a path. And again, until it becomes possible that the start delivers a satisfied reader to the promised destination.


In writing, the story I see that has emerged draws me into the editing process with pleasure, overcoming my first disappointment that my vision of perfection pouring from my imagination was a mirage. The whole has a charm that lures me in and begs me to reveal. Michelangelo’s description of sculpture as taking away the excess marble to reveal the statue inside perfectly captures the feeling I get in rewriting. So when I would tell my students rewriting is part of the process, I’m not telling them a hard truth, but a happy one.

This writer’s truth becomes the human’s paradox when trying to make a coherent narrative of one’s life. Narrative meaning reveals itself in the rewriting, something in life you don’t get to do. Other people may do it once you’re gone. They may biographize the life of a person they admire or who had an important accomplishment in such a way that it seems like the story was there all along. But in fact the coherent story is an artifact only possible once the actual person is gone. It has nothing to do with the life as it was lived, as the choices were made blind to the outcome, the discoveries uncovered without certainty that there was anything to discover.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a lot of time trying to live my life as a story.

To find the common thread that I could draw out in a way that reveals the meaningful arc of my life. I really don’t care if someone else manages to massage it into a story once I’m gone. That has got nothing to do with me. I want it now. Just like I write wanting the first draft of every story, script, book, and essay I write to be the final one.

Once I give up that hope for my life, the linear coherent narrative that I want to make of myself in my life, what’s left? These moments flashing by, what do I make of them? Small ones flutter in living gifs of memory like images projected on my psyche because of emotion or attachment or interest or beauty. Large ones of periods of my life now closed, and so able to be enclosed in a narrative like chapters in a book of essays: childhood in that house, love affair with that man, high school, grad school, my Seattle period, my LA period. But still, whether any of these chapters would survive the edits, what they might add up to, and what the title of the memoir would be, I can have no idea.

There is a great comfort here, once you accept your failure to know your own story. You don’t have to waste time with editing unless you enjoy it. In this, I think of my friend again. Unlike my students, she’s not writing to finish even as she holds the finish in her mind’s eye as the horizon to aim for. She’s writing as she lives. She’s never finished her book so far as I know, and I doubt she will, but it makes no difference. She is writing the way I was taught to sit zazen, always going back to the first breath if you lose count.

The moments of living for all you get. By all means, provisionally organize them like notes a researcher compiles, but know that you will never know the full story, never read the final book.


by Susan diRende  | Artwork by Alicia Krawchuck (1st) + Raman Aso (2nd) +  Natacha Palay (3rd)

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Susan diRende

Susan diRende communicates big ideas with a concoction of irreverence and insight. Her published works, from serious academic to sci-fi space farce, share a common thread of humor. Born in New Jersey of Italian parents, she has always looked to create at the intersection of worlds. An accomplished painter as well as writer, a strong visual imagination keeps her grounded in the "thingness" of the plastic arts alongside the ephemeral "nowness" of the lively arts.