If you happen to mention regretting a past decision, well-meaning friends will likely say:
Regrets are useless! Live in the present! The future will always be better!
We all have regrets. Why is sharing them so taboo? Why does hearing the words, I wish I’d… cause so much distress?
I’ve lamented about beginning to write so late in life. If only I’d started twenty years ago…
Here is the typical response, often with a comforting hand on my shoulder.
You weren’t meant to do it twenty years ago. You were meant to do it now. I suppose that could be true if I believed that my life story had already been written and I am just following the script. But I don’t. Twenty years ago, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might have a passion for it, and perhaps a bit of talent that could arise with a proper foundation and loads of hard work.
You’d be a different writer if you’d started 20 years ago. And that would be okay with me because I’d have twenty more years of knowing the deliciousness of getting lost in a story of my creation, the shock of a well-crafted sentence born from my brain, and the possibility of a career more satisfying than the one I had.
I’m reading Robin Black’s fantastic new collection of essays, Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing And Life Collide. Robin’s literary success came relatively late in life, a delay she attributes to many things—incapacitating agoraphobia, the ending of one marriage, three children, (one with special needs), but mostly from an insecurity spackled on by a narcissistic father. Me, I had a life of twos. Two prior successful careers, two healthy children, two husbands. Two dozen or so truly wonderful friends. I have no good excuse and yet it took me over five decades to find my way to fiction.
Here are Robin’s words on starting to write late in life from her wonderful essay, The Dreaded Desk Drawer Novel.
It’s easy to be irritated with myself, but this is a terribly challenging balance to strike for those of us who feel the pressures of time. It is hard enough to judge one’s own work under any circumstance, and harder still when a kind of panic distorts your view. How do you respond to that urgency productively, savoring the days and making the most of the months, while not letting awareness of age, even mortality, morph into the sort of anxiety that warps your judgment?
I love that she gets the pressure of the clock. The fear of wasting months, or even years, on work that doesn’t deserve the light the day.
I think it’s okay to have regrets. At 92, my father still laments giving Izzy Goldberg, the Philadelphia Army-Navy surplus king, advice about opening his first store and then refusing to help him. He still regrets not going to college when it was offered via the GI bill. He regrets medical decisions made for my seriously ill mother that may have hastened the end of her life, but likely not.
Perhaps sharing his regrets allows him another moment to think about his dear wife. Or to take pride in his prescience of a soon-to-be-booming business. Or to reminisce about his wartime activities.
Yes, it’s sad to hear him express these sentiments, but it would be sadder still if he were unable to. Or when he expressed them to be advised to let it all go… It’s like letting go of who you are.
We are our life’s choices. Our regrets are our history. They reflect our fears, our moments of unchecked emotion, our indecision. I can’t regret the honesty of those moments any more than I can reject the deliberate and caring ones.
And so I state, I regret that I degreed in Anthropology instead of English. I regret that my fear of expressing myself in any emotional way stopped me from writing sooner. I regret all the substandard stories I foisted on kind friends.
I also know these regrets are what drive my engine. They force me to overcome an aging memory, a faulty foundation, ill-advised temptation. They force me to dissect prior decisions, not just about writing. About life. They carve the path forward by avoiding the mistakes of the past.
And for me, as I assume for many of you, sharing is understanding. (Thank you, dear friends, for listening.)
Robin Black has also written the terrific story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, and the novel, Life Drawing. If you haven’t read them, please do.