he other night, lost between steps two and five of my shamefully long skin routine, I was struck by a thought: When Nora Ephron touted, “Everything is copy” and Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” were they speaking to a similar point or a contradictory one?
Since I got the letters “EIC” tattooed on the inside of my right elbow, I’ve been asked to interpret Nora’s words (or, more accurately, Nora’s mother’s words) a lot, and I recently stumbled into a new way of explaining it: As words to work by, “everything is copy” is a way of saying: “Don’t worry if your interviewee coughs so much you can’t hear what she’s saying — the coughs are the story too.” As words to live by, “everything is copy” is a way of saying: “Life is the coughs.”
This is where I paused, step three of my skincare routine dripping off my fingers: If Nora was saying life is inherently a story and Joan was saying we create narrative in order to make sense of the inherent senselessness of life, where did they disagree, if at all? It sounds like intellectual masturbation, but I became convinced in that moment, as I stared at my shiny forehead in the mirror, that the secret to life was hidden in that answer.
The idea of “story” has been on my mind a lot lately — particularly the role it plays when I’m faced with a big decision. What do I really want? Which part of me is wrapping myself in the comfort of a story instead of reality? The internal observation required to make a grounded decision can sometimes feel much harder than making the decision itself. I’ve spent years resenting the idea of a “gut instinct” for that very reason. How the hell am I supposed to listen to something that’s nearly indistinguishable from my fear instinct or my impulsive instinct?
Somewhere around step five, I forgot which step I was on and got in bed. As I stared at the ceiling, a memory floated to the top of my consciousness: a road trip taken down the coast of California a few years ago with my ex. On our way back, we had stopped at a middle-of-nowhere pet store, not quite ready to go home yet. As we wandered around the aisles looking for a toy for our cat, Bug, we discovered a rescue pet adoption room nestled in the back. We wandered in. Rolling around the door of her cage, unrecognizably social and friendly compared to our own cat, was the cutest brown tabby we’d ever seen. We oohed and ahhed for longer than we could casually justify. And then the air between us shifted.
You know that stomach-dropping rush you get when a wild idea, which you produced almost as a joke, scales the fence of your imagination and peeks over to the other side, presenting itself as a possibility? The idea that maybe we should adopt this cat started as a flutter of eye contact and evolved into a look of excited alarm between us. We left the store to talk immediately.
Perched on a parking lot curb, baking under the hot sun, we agonized over what to do. We ticked off the reasons it was a bad idea on our fingers and then countered them one-by-one with whatever bullshit we could muster. Our stomachs were in knots, but the spontaneity of it all was so appealing that we gulped it down like Pepto. We were sick of being responsible! Other people made thoughtless decisions all the time and their lives were more interesting for it! Couldn’t that be us just this once? We stomped back in and signed the papers, almost out of spite for the versions of ourselves that would never have done the same.
As we drove that final hour home, a new purring cat in my lap, we couldn’t believe what we’d done. But even if we felt our devil-may-care grip loosen, we busied ourselves with the distraction of a new creature. We methodically introduced her to Bug over the course of a few days. The idea that she would take him in as her baby, as the store clerk said she might, was quickly and comically abandoned. She wanted nothing to do with Bug, and he was so obsessed and nervous around her he hadn’t relaxed in days.
One late night a couple of weeks in, we admitted to each other, almost in whispers, that something wasn’t right. Under the cool of our comforter, away from that blood-pumping moment in that sizzling parking lot, we saw the decision for what it was: a big, hot mistake. Horrified by our uncharacteristic carelessness, we started brainstorming what to do. We would keep her and give her a good home if we had to — that was on us — but if we knew someone who wanted a cat, maybe we could tie this up in a shoddy bow.
The solution came to us the next day, as if a gift from heaven. My partner’s dad had just moved out of a house with tons of pets and into a new apartment by himself, and he told us he would welcome the company of a new furry companion. We knew we didn’t deserve this quick solve, and the intoxicating mixture of guilt and relief that washed over us as we handed over that little tabby cat was almost blinding. In the ensuing years, aside from the occasional, “Remember when we had another cat?!” we scarcely spoke of her again.
As I lay in bed the other night, recalling this whole saga as if I were watching a play of my own life, the moral shifted into stark relief. That pit in my stomach, the one that sank to the depths of my soul in that pet store parking lot, wasn’t some mysterious “gut instinct” — it was my profound disappointment that I knew better than to do what I was doing. It was my distinct sadness at the realization that the fun, romantic, spontaneous decision wasn’t the right one. You could call it my gut, but you could also call it my body fighting with reality for the sake of the story.
Until that night, I’d logged my three-week tango with an unwanted cat as a misguided attempt at ushering novelty into a situation that needed a different kind of tending. But now I see it as something else, too: a perfectly contained example of what it looks like to ignore your gut. As I’ve retro-applied it to other big decisions I’ve belabored, the details change a bit — instead of the allure of spontaneity, I’ve fallen for the allure of comfort, or of novelty, or of fantasy — but the basic rule remains the same: When some part of me knows that I’m more wrapped up in an idea than in what I know is true, I start to feel sick.
As Joan Didion pointed out when she said we use them as a means of survival, stories are powerful tools. But when we lose sight of our ability to write our own, as Nora Ephron reminded us we can, we become victims of our decisions instead of agents of them. It’s a subtle difference, but as I drifted off to sleep that night, my routine lost to the whims of my own story, I began to think that parsing it is the most important challenge of all.
Collage via Getty Images.