How many lives have you lived? I’m not referring to your reincarnation fantasies…though who doesn’t enjoy indulging in the notion that once we inhabited a different skin and a different reality?
No, I’m talking about the various stages of your current existence. You were once a child, a teenager, and before that a baby in need of constant care and protection. As a young adult, perhaps you were a student or struggled to make ends meet as a single parent with a minimum wage job. Maybe you ended up as a young professional tied to a desk in an office where no one knew your name. Or maybe all your dreams came true before you even had a chance to conjure an alternative – you found your soulmate or your perfect career, or you seized an opportunity to gamble on your convictions and were lucky enough to see the wager to pay off.
Maybe your early years were tough, with memories you’d rather keep buried. It could be that death or illness or tragedy hit you fast and hard. Maybe you’re still reeling.
No matter what your experience, I guarantee when you look back at yourself through the ages, you see how your thoughts and beliefs evolved. As you age your tastes change, your perspective shifts, and you abandon convictions and prejudices for different ideas and assumptions. It’s an ever-evolving process, and at times, you barely resemble the person you used to be.
And sometimes it all comes full circle. I know I loved my brown, English riding boots when I was 11, and decades later, my feet proudly bear another pair of tall brown boots in soft dark leather. As I age, find myself revisiting old preferences and predilections and finding some passions and desires still as fiery and alluring as ever, while a few of my favorites no longer fit quite right.
In Simple Abundance, Sarah Ban Breathnach encourages those of us in search of a more authentic life to face our past with a sense of curiosity and to approach our histories like an archeologist on the hunt for artifacts and clues from civilizations past.
“Today, become willing to remember,” writes Breathnach. “Prepare yourself for a gentle but authentic dig that will help you discover the Mystery in which your soul abides.”
For those of us on the creative path, these types of excavations serve two purposes: they help us discover they “whys” and “hows” of our own journey while also supplying fodder for our stories, poems, and other artistic efforts.
As you prepare for your next project, think about the many lives of your characters have experienced – what were they like in the years before your story begins? Are they the same person now they were at 15, 21, 35? How will their arc play out once the plot peaks and the resolutions are at hand? How will they remember the story’s events 20 years later? Will they live to old age, or will this moment be their defining era?
Believe it or not, characters keep on living long after you type “the end” on that last page. In fact, it could be that where they’re going (or where they’ve been) is more compelling than where they are right now (which is why so many authors succumb to prequels and sequels and one book morphs into an 8-novel odyssey…I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin!).
Explore the possibilities!
Don’t worry, you don’t need to cover your character’s entire existence. Don’t let their history overwhelm you, but let it seep in as you write. You never know what you might find once you realize the length and breadth of the average life – all those different incarnations, all those different lives to live.
In Ban Breathnach’s view, searching within can set us free, not just of expectations or self-imposed limitations, but of our fear. By looking back with “affection and understanding at your real life,” you can brave your own “dark continent” where many marvels away discovery.”
“Be quite and call forth the dream you buried long ago,” encourages Ban Breathnach. “The ember is still glowing in your soul. Set it in your mind, hold it tenderly in your heart.”
Once you begin to look back on your history with a keen and loving eye, you can use your discoveries to fuel your creative fires.
“Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it,” wrote Sylvia Path. You just need “the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”