I’ve been thinking a lot about reality recently. And it’s occurred to me that for a relatively idealistic person, I tend to adopt an extremely narrow, logical approach to my past. Consequently, when I think back over my life, I ignore the things I don’t remember. Probably we all do this.
So I remember bits of our family holiday in 1979, if only because it was shortly after the election of Thatcher as PM, and I was still so politically naive at the age of 11 that I still thought it was a good thing for a woman – any woman – to be elected to that position. I’d never heard of Conservatives, or realised that a political party could despise its fellow citizens to quite such an extent.
And yet I don’t remember anything of the summer a few years earlier, when we had a visit from my Aunty Pam and Uncle Pete, during which – to judge by our slightly raffish appearance – we were impersonating some kind of Mafia family.
So does this mean that my aunt and uncle didn’t visit us in summer 1974? And if I sit down now and write a detailed account of my (imaginary) Austrian cousins visiting us in 1983, what distinguishes the two? A real visit of which I remember nothing, and an imaginary one of which I have an extremely clear recollection? Which is the more real?
Research has shown that the brain doesn’t really know the difference between reality and imagination. This is, apparently, very useful when it comes to setting yourself goals. So for example, if you tell yourself in sufficient detail how fit you are, your brain goes, “Hm. So I am. Then I need to behave like this“, and off you go, refusing dessert and getting to the gym four times a week like you always intended to. (It should be said that although I believe this works, I haven’t yet managed to implement it in terms of practice.)
And I’ve recently discovered, both from personal experience and from watching someone else do it, that you can deliberately rewrite your past, giving yourself a more satisfactory plotline – whatever you personally consider to be satisfactory. This means that those little niggles (“Why didn’t I say ‘Yes’ when he asked me out?”, “I should have taken that job offer”, “If only I’d gone to that party”…) can be resolved. And it’s surprisingly liberating.
Now, obviously you can’t rewrite the big stuff in your life. If you’re an impoverished 45-year-old bartender, you can’t have accepted that job offer if it would have led you to becoming a billionaire at 30. But you can definitely picture yourself taking that job offer – whatever it was – and it not leading to the success you’ve always imagined. Maybe you’d have burned out at 23? Maybe you’d have been on the street at 25? Maybe you’d long since have been dead? Instead, you’re a bartender, and yeah, perhaps it doesn’t pay much but you enjoy meeting people and hearing their stories and having your afternoons free. (And if you don’t, get a new job. Life is short!)
But for small regrets it’s surprisingly effective. You think of a situation that you’ve always regretted, and you sit down with a pad of paper, or at your computer – personally, I always write best on paper, but these days I have to use one of those soft propelling pencils so that my atrophied writing muscles can cope – and you write yourself an alternate story as you’ve imagined it so many times. Write it like you’re a novelist. Put in description, dialogue, comedy, drama… whatever it takes to make it believable. Plunge into the story like it’s a warm bath, submerge yourself in the bubbles, feel it permeate your pores as the scent of Badedas tickles your nose. Write it and rewrite it. Live it. Feel the excitement, the nervousness, the elation – or the boredom, the arguments, the misunderstandings, the failures. Or, more likely, both.
Because if you look back over your real life, even the best bits aren’t perfect, are they? If you were editing the film of your life, you’d tweak stuff to make it flow more smoothly. Well, when you rewrite your past, don’t do this. Instead, bring your most level-headed realist to the table and give them free rein to sneer as much as they like. Write as it would have happened. And see where it takes you. In my experience, it takes you down a path that makes very little difference to where you are today, or to who you are.
And if it does, you’ve learned something. Perhaps you realise that you really can’t stand being married to your spouse any more, that you haven’t felt excitement – or even affection – with them for years. Or your reinvented past when you worked as temporary crew, delivering yachts all around the world, is so challenging, so much you, that you decide you can’t live another moment without getting back on the water somehow. Maybe you can build on those lessons and make small changes in your current reality. Maybe you have to throw it all up and start again. Or maybe you just manage to finally put some of those regrets to rest and be happier with what you’ve really achieved.
Whatever the result, I guarantee you’ll find it an interesting experience – and if you have literary ambitions, a better writer, too.