The Story That Saved Me: On Writing My Way Out of a Life That No Longer Felt Like Mine
Lauren McBrayer’s Novel Showed up Exactly When She Needed It
The clouds were dark over the ocean as I sat next to my husband on a beach chair in Mexico. I’d been feeling a vague sort of apprehension all weekend, and now it was Sunday, the day before we were supposed to fly home. The approaching storm struck me as an appropriate ending to the four-day vacation we’d taken to celebrate my thirty-ninth birthday. We’d bickered through most of it. And now forty was coming for me. Black clouds seemed about right.
I blamed Dani Shapiro for some of it. Not the bleakness of the impending decade, but the off-kilter way I was feeling that day. I’d devoured her memoir Devotion cover to cover the previous afternoon, so taken with her writing and a profound sense of comradery that my margarita went warm and watery on the table beside me as I read. There’s a passage where Dani imagines her life as a rollercoaster with mid-life as the peak. Tick, tick, tick as you slowly climb. Then you crest. Then you speed through the rest of it, barreling toward the end.
I’m going to die this year, was the thought that finally surfaced as I watched those clouds roll toward us over the sea. I can’t say where the thought came from, though I’d always been preoccupied with the scarcity of time. There was a period in college when I felt moments passing as a physical sensation, like walking on a moving sidewalk and being aware of the ground hurrying me along.
And there had been moments leading up to that birthday vacation when I’d looked at my three children and watched them age right before my eyes. My daughter was nine and then she was 19 and then 29 and then 39, all at once. The idea that I might be dying and that my psyche might have somehow been aware of it and trying to subconsciously prepare me made perfect sense. It was far more palatable than the truth I couldn’t let myself look at yet.
“I’m dying,” I told a friend over dinner when I got back to LA. “I don’t know how, or when, just that it’s soon. This year.” We were drinking rosé and eating crispy Brussels sprouts in a restaurant filled with people aggressively avoiding any thought of death.
“It’s metaphorical,” my friend said immediately. Not at all the response I was expecting. Or hoping for, frankly. This was the person with whom I traded symptoms and ailments and existential fears about declining health. She was supposed to get it, and then to help me figure out whether I could avoid this impending doom by somehow twisting fate.
“And why am I metaphorically dying?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t think we know that yet.”
A month later I was back in Mexico, this time with a group of women I’d just met, most of them much younger than me, celebrating a friend’s fortieth. While the others did jump squats to nineties hip-hop, I sat poolside and contemplated writing a memoir about my looming death. I tried to distract myself with the paperback copy of Conversations with Friends I’d bought for the trip, but even Sally Rooney couldn’t pull me out of my funk. The idea of writing a memoir was poking at me. Impulsively, I pulled out my phone and applied to a writing workshop Dani Shapiro was leading at the White Hart Inn that fall. I said in the application that I was working on a new memoir project. I told myself that if I got into the workshop, that would be true.
At some point, I dozed off in my chair. I woke up disoriented, sweat sticky on the backs of my legs. And there it was. The seed of a story, lodged irrevocably in my mind. Not a memoir about my death hunch, but a novel about two women, one in her late thirties, the other two decades older, both married to men, who have a life-altering affair. I was aware then, the way a person is aware of their eye color, that I had a close female friend with whom I shared a very similar age gap. It didn’t register as something important to pay attention to. Because this was fiction. And I was, I had always assumed, straight. It crossed my mind that maybe the lesbian relationship in Conversations with Friends had sparked something. It didn’t occur to me ask myself why.
By the time I returned from that trip, I’d written the first three pages of what would become Like a House on Fire, by hand, on some printer paper I found in the house where we were staying. It was as if that poolside snooze had opened up a vein inside me. The story spilled out. At some point that summer I learned that I’d been accepted into Dani’s workshop, and that it didn’t matter if the project I wanted to bring was fiction. So that September, I sat in a warm and inviting room and workshopped my first chapter with Dani and a small group of female writers. I heard myself tell them that the story felt deeply personal to me, that it seemed to be writing itself. Someone asked whether Merit would ultimately leave her husband. I heard myself say I didn’t know.
It astounds me now that I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see that I was writing myself out of a life that had long before stopped feeling like my own. I’d been married to my husband for fourteen years. We had three young kids and a house we owned in a city I loved. We had couple friends, a collection of Christmas ornaments from years and years of tree decorating parties, a gallery wall of family photos in our bedroom. Things were supposed to be settled for me. I was at the peak of my rollercoaster. There was nothing left do to but speed through the rest of my life.
By the time I’d finished the first draft of the manuscript, three months into the pandemic, I understood that my friend who’d said I’d die a metaphorical death was absolutely right. In the span of a year, I’d become a woman who was ready to leave her marriage. A woman who knew that what she wanted for the rest of her life wasn’t cold and quiet co-existence, but profoundly intimate love. I suspected I’d find it with a woman, and that the novel I’d just written was my psyche’s attempt to make sense of that growing awareness. But I also understood that I wasn’t writing my way into a new relationship. I was writing my way into the most authentic version of myself.
Merit isn’t me. She’s a character with her own dimension, her own history, a marriage that is similar but not identical to mine. The choices she makes in the novel aren’t the ones I made in my real life, and the woman she falls in love with doesn’t exist off the page. But I do see myself in her, as I believe I was supposed to. Just as I see the possibility of what a true life partner could be in the character of Jane.
Call it wish fulfillment. Call it psychic aspiration. My explanation is that the story showed up exactly when I needed it, to save my life.
Lauren McBrayer’s Like a House on Fire is available now via G.P. Putnam’s Sons.