Victor Frankl tells this story of his arrival in a Nazi death camp:
“There were still naive prisoners among us who asked, to the amusement of the more seasoned ones who were there as helpers, if they could not keep a wedding ring, a medal or a good-luck piece. No one could yet grasp the fact that everything would be taken away.
I tried to take one of the old prisoners into my confidence. Approaching him furtively, I pointed to the roll of paper in the inner pocket of my coat and said, “Look, this is the manuscript of a scientific book. I know what you will say; that I should be grateful to escape with my life, that that should be all I an expect of fate. But I cannot help myself. I must keep this manuscript at all costs; it contains my life’s work. Do you understand that?”
A grin spread slowly over his face first piteous, then more amused, mocking, insulting, until he bellowed one word at me in answer to my question, a word that was ever present in the vocabulary of the camp inmates: “Shit!” At that moment I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.
As a writer myself, I cannot imagine the searing pain and lingering ache of throwing a manuscript away. I could lose everything else – my pretty wedding ring, photographs, everything except the humans I love – and survive it, but I cannot imagine losing my work.
However, this excerpt is from a little book called, Man’s Search for Meaning and it is Viktor Frankl’s tour de force. In it, Frankl posits that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but meaning. It has become one of the most influential books in the world, selling millions and helping to form our critical thinking around coping through suffering. I don’t know what was written in the manuscript Frankl lost when he arrived in his worst nightmare, but I know it wasn’t this. Our stories are formed by our experience and they are sharpened and strengthened by our suffering.
My friend, Emma, had a complicated and painful relationship with her dad until his death when she was in high school. She recently posted on the anniversary of his passing and said this: “Anniversaries are sometimes horrible and heart wrenching and sometimes merely sentimental and contemplative, and I’m still understanding the balancing act of honoring both, and that honor includes the person you lost and the person you became because you lost them.”
I keep turning that phrase over in my mind…”the person you lost and the person you became because you lost them.”
I hold in my hands the book that became of what that Viktor Frankl lost. And it is magnificent.
I wonder: Can you trace back to a moment when the story you were writing disappeared? Can you pinpoint exactly when the pages flew out of your hand and into the winds of change or circumstance or suffering? I can. I know exactly the moment. I remember begging God to save my story. I remember trying to gather pages as they scattered, hoping to piece something together with what remained. I remember the absolute certainty that I would not survive it.
When we feel we’ve lost everything, or most things, or the one thing we’re certain we can’t live without – the only way forward is to realize the story is still in-the-making.
He put a new song in my mouth and a new pen in my hand. And the story I’m writing today is more painful and more purposeful than anything contained in the first draft. Maybe it isn’t my work after all.