An exercise from a short story workshop I’m taking: Think about a time you had an opportunity to turn left, but chose to keep going straight. Write a story in which you decided to turn left instead.
As soon as the instructor gave the assignment, I knew what my topic had to be. It’s actually something I’ve written about in the past, and thanks to a writing habit I’ve maintained for close to four decades, I have a good record of the moment I kept going straight.
Since my sophomore year in college, I have maintained a journal in a series of spiral-bound notebooks, which I’ve kept with me through the years. The journal has served a number of purposes over the decades; should I ever grow curious about my monthly expenses from 1991, where and when I went on vacation in 2012, how I felt after the first day at my new job in 2004, or my general emotional state from just about any year, I can pull out the notebooks from that time and see what a younger version of me thought at the time.
Although I didn’t recall the exact date, I was pretty certain the moment about which I wanted to write occurred sometime during the notebook started at the end of 1986:
After flipping through a few dozen pages, I found the journal entry which began this story: March 17 of the following year. If you look to the upper right, you’ll see a few words that show that yes, this story is about a girl who I let get away.
But what makes this moment so right for this exercise was that, several years later, I used my journal to imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t let her get away. I knew it would be interesting to see what I thought back then, and see how those thoughts may have changed in the following years.
Problem was, I couldn’t recall when I wrote that “what if” scenario. It definitely seemed like a multi-page entry (most of my journal pages contain two or dated entries), and I was pretty sure I had made it after my children were born. By starting at the turn of the century and skimming forward through my notebooks for lengthy entries, I figured it wouldn’t take long to find that entry.
Several hours later, I was flipping through the 2016 journal, and starting to wonder if I had skimmed past that entry. Surrendering to my fatigue, I set the journals aside and went to bed resigned to the thought of abandoning the search for that second journal.
But on a whim this morning, I went backwards from the turn of the century, and quickly found a reference to “that ‘what if’ exercise I went through a while back about me and Marie” (and yes, I’m changing her name for these blog posts). Inspired, I kept flipping back, and eventually found it: multiple pages, over several days, a fully imagined scenario where she and I stayed together. The journal was from the year between my two children were born — several years earlier than what I believed, but I was relieved at not having to go all the way back to the 1980s.
Later tonight, I’ll read those journal entries. Much will be very familiar, yet I’ll be surprised at what I’ve forgotten. The “what if” scenario I wrote a decade after the event will be my starting point, but now that I’m more than two decades older, this will be a new story. I feel fortunate to have so much material to work with, and also excited to start with an empty page: