An old boyfriend once begged me to have sex with him in a dressing room “for the story.” I refused, disgusted by his reasoning, and told him to try on his dress pants so we could get the hell out of there. I’d eventually grow accustomed to those kinds of requests, which were central to his cliché grab-life-by-the-ball ethos: run around in a rainstorm for the story, snowboard naked for the story, climb a fucking mountain for the story. I never understood it and it would eventually end us.
If you told me that 10 years later, I’d be living by a similar mantra, I’d have told you to go run around in a rainstorm yourself. But when I watched the Nora Ephron documentary early last year, the expression “everything is copy” latched onto the part of my brain that fuels my thoughts and never let go. It was something Nora’s mother, also a writer, used to say. The mentality defined Nora’s career. Her willingness to observe all of life and make it copy is precisely what made her writing so memorable.
There is one crucial difference between “do it for the story” and “everything is copy:” One is having sex in a dressing room for the sake of it, the other is recognizing the request as good material. Taken less literally, the latter is so much more than both.
This day sucks, but everything is copy. This is so hard, but everything is copy. Slowly it became a new step in my mental processing. Occasionally it was realized in a very real way. I’ve written about my breakups, my low self-esteem, my unhappiness, my crooked career path. Eventually though, “everything is copy” did more than transform a reactive outlet (cry-journaling) into a proactive way of sharing (personal essays). It changed the way I experience emotions.
For so long, all my “bad” feelings were disfigured and multiplied by an illogical fear that they’d never go away and were gravely serious. If I was disappointed in myself for an hour, I was a disappointment. If my life felt unfulfilling for a day, my whole life was unfulfilling. If I doubted my relationship for a week, my entire relationship was a sham. I’d suffer every emotion like it was a blanket diagnosis, as though I’d unlocked a door to a room I’d probably hang out in forever. If I didn’t hurry up and escape through grit and revision and hard work, I was doing it wrong.
Uncomfortable emotions were problems I had to solve.
Imagine if, every time you went to the gym and felt the pain of physical exertion, you worried that pain was wrong, permanent, a symptom of something bad. Suddenly the ache would feel much more harrowing and difficult and tragic because, holy shit, what if you felt like that forever? What was wrong with you that your body felt that way? But exercise is nothing like that. Knowing the pain is short-lived, necessary and productive makes it radically more bearable. It doesn’t make it go away, but it allows you to breathe through it and feel it and not panic.
I soon noticed that welcoming and accepting bad feelings in the same way made them much easier to sit with. Maybe everything was just copy. Maybe copy was the story of my life and my life wasn’t a shadowy house to properly navigate but a crazy rollercoaster I wanted to ride. Maybe sadness and uncertainty and frustration weren’t just the shitty parts to make the good parts feel better, but just parts — the logical means through which I got to the next one.
Bad feelings are exercise. They’re not problems, symptoms, wrong turns. They’re a productive part of the process. They’re the interesting part of the book; they’re the thing that’s going to lead the character somewhere else, somewhere new. They’re not a diagnosis or a trap.
I hate to use the words of my old boyfriend, but next time you feel like shit, try whispering to your own brain to do it for the story. Try to not run like hell toward a solution, to not panic, to let it hang out in your head for a while. You’ve been around long enough to know that dark places aren’t locked rooms, but tunnels. What if you let yourself ride it out? What if you appreciated it as a small chapter in a long book worth reading? It may sound backwards but, expecting and accepting the hard parts makes them so much easier to live with.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi. Label design by Ana Tellez.