Next week it will have been exactly one year since you and I started writing this Sunday column. That’s roughly 50 stories–which is nothing when you consider that the late and revered George Merrill published 353 essays in this space. When I began, a friend wondered aloud whether I would run out of stories, and at first, I wondered as well. Then I figured out these tales are not about me; they’re about us.
Start in me, end in you. And isn’t every new day an unborn story?
I was, of course, already writing when I got the Spy call. Why? Because I have no greater talents and, as Arlene Croce says, “Writing is how you explain to yourself what has happened to you.” My theory is that what’s happened to me is probably something you’ve experienced, too, but one particular conundrum has haunted me since I was a child. Do you ever think about this?
Everything has an expiration date. No matter what we do to preserve our planet’s diverse species, convert to renewable resources, and end reality television… in 4.5 billion years, our star will run out of hydrogen. At that moment, she will balloon towards the planet, dry our oceans, blow off our magnetic field, shred our atmosphere, and in a last violent expenditure of energy, carry us back into the embrace of her collapse.
And even if we were to find a way to renew her fuel source, the entire Milky Way galaxy is going to pass through Andromeda. The heavens are dancing, and she is our next partner. This fragile planet that so graciously carries us around the entire galaxy every 230 million years, will be uninhabitable a billion years from now. Four more trips, brave-hearts. Four more. Then Eden will cease to exist.
And I can’t quite take this in. All our love, all our longing, the stormy gray-green oceans, the ancient mountain ranges thrust skyward as continents crashed, our diamond-solitaire moon– won’t exist forever. No matter what we do.
These are facts I recognize intellectually—like I recognize my children will most likely live their lives on other continents, that my goofball dog must one day die–but these are facts I can’t make sense of emotionally. Writers are always trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. You should be careful around us. We’re always taking notes.
(Ask my sisters. The boys I grew up with. My handsome brothers-in-law.)
Ask my dog.
Besides writing, I help other writers write publishable stories, so you’ll have something new to read, and because it is a way to turn a calling into a profession that is not dependent on the whim of an overworked acquisitions editor who is possibly having a bad day. Mentors nurture, guide and encourage. Motherhood without term limits. (Yay.)
Serving other writers is a privilege. The lives they recount so often make me want to be a better writer, editor, and always, always, a better human being.
One of my writers is a surgeon who has been a first responder at every global disaster in the last 30 years—tidal waves, earthquakes, the Ebola outbreak, war zones, bridge collapses–Tom was there, pulling survivors from the rubble, breathing life into the broken. Trying to accept the unacceptable—that there is no answer for why one two-year-old dies and another lives side by side in the same apartment collapse. How do I know of Tom’s pain? Because he hiked a thousand miles on the Pacific Coast Trail to heal the trauma to his own broken heart. And then, to explain to himself what had happened to him… he wrote about it.
I wrote The Story Within to connect with people like Tom, who, like you, I’m unlikely to meet in person. I’d published stories and essays, but they were transients. I wanted my work to settle down, to own some real estate between two covers in a bookstore while the opportunity still exists. The world of publishing is changing at the rate temperatures are rising. I don’t know how long bookstores are even going to be around.
For nearly ten years, I’d visit my book at Barnes and Noble. I’d take its picture like it was one of my children—as if it had also left home to make a life for itself out in the world. I found it in England, New Zealand, and a library in Chicago. Do good work, I’d whisper. Godspeed, story of my heart.
As this anniversary nears, I hope my stories find those they are meant to serve. I hope they inspire other stories to be written, particularly yours. Our stories connect us. Your stories are the gravity that holds everything with mass together.
If the sun were extinguished tomorrow, you wouldn’t know for 8 minutes and 19 seconds. At 93 million miles from Earth, that’s how long it takes for our star’s light to reach us. So, if the candle were blown out, you’d be living in that borrowed light for 8 minutes. How would you spend it if you knew?
I’d find you. And tell you not to worry–the only true story has no end.
Because story-light, like starlight, will travel the universe till the end of time. It doesn’t need a star to shine.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.