I Just Want to Finish My Book Before I Die
December 1, 2020 § 20 Comments
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.