I Just Want to Finish My Book Before I Die 

December 1, 2020 § 20 Comments

By Amy Grier

The writer sitting next to me in a workshop last year was sharing excerpts from her memoir about her narcissistic mother. During our discussion of her vivid and heartbreaking prose, she blurted out, “I just want to finish my book before I die.”

My brain lit up with recognition. “That’s exactly what I always think!” I said. “I guess I’m not the only one.”

I’d found a kindred spirit, someone who grew up in an unstable family and understood the particular anxiety of wondering if you’re good enough to write a book, if you even deserve to write a book, if you can complete a book before you get run over by a truck or the world disintegrates into fiery chaos.

Because doom awaits. That’s how my psyche works. The future, to me, is precarious, unpredictable, and limited.

“Children of narcissistic parents,” writes Julie L. Hall in Psychology Today, “particularly children who are routinely devalued or scapegoated, commonly internalize feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness, and imminent threat that create a sense of foreshortened future.”

I first learned about the idea of a foreshortened future years ago from my therapist, but it’s only recently that I’ve connected it with my fear—the anxiety I usually repress and deny—that I can’t finish my book-length memoir. That’s something other people can do, “normal people,” people who aren’t fundamentally damaged.

Growing up with a mother with Borderline Personality Disorder and narcissism created in me the subconscious belief that I can screw anything up at any time. I won’t see it coming. I’ll fail at whatever I most hope for, and I won’t know exactly why, except that it’s my fault. There’s just something about me that doesn’t work right.

As Hall writes, I experience a “dissociation from [my future] and alienation from those who have confidence in living relatively long, full, and stable lives.”

How do The Normals do it? Where does that confidence even come from? It’s as if they were given a rulebook at birth teaching them how to make life work and my copy was inexplicably lost.

But I am determined not to let others see this anxiety in me. I’m afraid letting it show will give it power.

Essentially, I’m faking it until I make it. I work on myself and work on my book even with this relentless inability to imagine a future in which I succeed.

My memoir, Terrible Daughter, is about freeing myself from my parents and accepting all the parts of me: beautiful, strong, damaged, or whatever. Sometimes I feel it, that inner strength and self-belief I write about, as I dare to tell the truth about my life. I’m revealing family secrets I’m supposed to hide. It’s empowering to break the rules.

Writing the truth is a radical, artistic act that salves my psychic wounds in a unique way, like weaving together disconnected threads inside of me. I can glimpse what wholeness might feel like.

So book or no book, I’m determined to keep trying. And I know I’m not alone. I know there are other writers who share this fear, who, in their solitude, grapple with the dread of failing to write a book as well as the uncertainty inherent in the writing process itself.

Even when we feel confident, we can never be sure of how a story will end. Writing has a way of leading us to emotional places and even revelations we don’t expect. But I rely on this as a crucial part of my process: I may not see what’s coming, but what’s coming might be gratifying, even healing. All I can do is to write when I can with as much clarity and courage as I can.

I don’t have any three-step plan to eliminate the fear of a foreshortened future. Perhaps it will always be there. If so, I hope I can accept it as a part of who I am; not an enemy of my work, but a presence reminding me of all I’ve been through and accomplished so far.

I do believe that I, and all of you reading this, have a right to tell the truth. And when those moments of strength show up, I grab them and go to work.


Amy Grier earned her MFA at Lesley University. A singer and classically trained pianist, she has taught music and English in the U.S. and Japan. Amy has a master’s in East Asian Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and one in Literature and Writing from Rivier University. Her prose and poetry has appeared in Poetry East, eratio, Streetlight Magazine, xoJane, and Dream International Quarterly. Her memoir-in-progress, Terrible Daughter, is about surviving childhood with a mentally ill mother.

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§ 20 Responses to I Just Want to Finish My Book Before I Die 

  • juliemcgue says:

    I am completely drawn in by the outline of your personal story and I know others will be too. Can’t wait for your memoir to come out! Kudos to you for the courage to honor yourself.

  • Huh~ reading this post shines a bright light on the childhood issues that still linger in my 70 yr old life. I can screw up anything, everything that goes wrong is my fault, and I have struggled to find a story to finish. Mom and I did a lot of work to create a good relationship before she died.
    Now I have greater hope for myself. Thank you for showing me something I haven’t understood.

  • Thank you for sharing your struggle. It is an act of courage and generosity. I have always contended that I had great parents and a happy childhood, but that claim does not bear too much examination. Many of us are faking it. (My brother has Borderline Personality Disorder. He has not voluntarily spoken to me in fifteen years. I try to let that be a good thing.)

    • Amy Grier says:

      Thank you 🙂 I don’t want to be hard on your brother, because BPD is such a difficult illness to live with, but IMO having a strong boundary there really is a good idea for you.

  • Wow…wonderfully articulated! Thank you for bringing meaning now to what I only danced around in my memoir when I finally published it three years ago.

  • Heidi Croot says:

    Writing through tears to thank you for your insight. We have the same mother. I haven’t done Ancestry DNA yet; maybe we’re sisters. You’ve written my story and my fear in this piece, and given my husband and me a way to understand my lament through the decades about this mysterious-no-more “foreshortened future.” Yes, or better still, yawp, to daring to tell the truth, and the sheer joy of discovery in writing. I am so keen to read your book.

    • Amy says:

      Oh Heidi, thank you for sharing this. I deeply understand this fear and it’s not your fault. I haven’t done any DNA stuff either. But I claim you as sister and and any others (of any gender) who are kindred spirits in this struggle.

  • jgarywriter says:

    This is so good and true. I think there a lot of us out there- you described my family background. And as much work as I have done on this, you added some A-ha moments to my journey of unraveling why I am who I am. So thanks for this. And yes, every time I got on a plane I asked to live to finish the book. And I did! I hope you do too, all of us “terrible daughters” are waiting to read it.

  • Amy says:

    Oh man, do I know that feeling! Travel really brings out the future dissociation in me 🙂

  • lowestoftlad says:

    I’m not sure if this helps, but due to some difficult times raising our sons, I began to take an interest in yoga and meditation. Perhaps the main challenge I faced was coping with the sense of imminent doom, of ‘catastrophizing’ the future, when in reality I, like most everyone else has no idea what the future will hold. Pema Chodron (‘When Things Fall Apart’) stresses – as does much of Buddhist teaching – remaining anchored in the present – for the truth is none of us really know what the future holds (though we all know how the story ends). I am currently reading, ‘The Untethered Soul’, by Michael Singer, and he explores similar themes. I end each morning session (twenty minutes) of mediation with the following mantra: “The past is history, the future is a mystery, the present is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present”. Bit cheesy, perhaps, but try it!

  • lowestoftlad says:

    (Meditation, not mediation)!

    • ppumpkin55 says:

      Right there with you on the meditation, because it IS mediation between my better self and my tortured soul!

  • barbcashman says:

    Amy, thank you for your bravery in writing and publishing this. Based on the comments above you have struck a very resonant chord. It’s so very, very difficult to come to grips with a narcissistic or BPD mother because it is such a fundamental bond. I have sent this to my closest friend, whom I immediately thought of when I was reading this. This is good medicine!

  • betsyetchart says:

    Amy, thank you for this post. I’ve recently started researching NPD, and good books by/for/about those who of us who have lived in the orbit of such people are important and feel especially urgent now, as the entire nation has been held hostage to such a personality for four years.

  • ppumpkin55 says:

    “Writing the truth is a radical, artistic act that salves my psychic wounds in a unique way, like weaving together disconnected threads inside of me. I can glimpse what wholeness might feel like.” I do know what wholeness feels like. It’s the remnants of fear and the scattered shards that still wake me at night. But writing it all down…I definitely feel solid.

  • uzoamakaanudu says:

    “I’m faking it till I make it” actually got me thinking.
    I’d definitely be borrowing a leaf.
    Nice piece.

  • […] beside me, I read courageous posts about Chelsey Drysdale’s courage in the face of rejection, Amy Grier’s determination to finish her memoir, and Shiv Dutta’s late-life publishing […]

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