Some years ago, I was in a relationship that wasn’t working.
He resented my immersion in my writing as I often chose it over being with him. My consistency and dedication to my career made him feel envious since he had nothing similar in his life and he felt ignored, neglected and uninspired.
I felt smothered and one day, when we were in the car on our
way to dinner, he said, “Why don’t you ever write about me?”
“You’re lucky I don’t,” I said.
After we went our separate ways, I was upset and angry and when I put pen to paper, I found myself writing something about him that was less than golden. I was doing what he had asked but if he had seen it, he wouldn’t have liked it. He was fortunate that I didn’t want to publish it or show it to anyone. The moral of the story: If you’re in a relationship with a writer or an artist, be careful because anything you do or say will inevitably show up on the page or the canvas. To quote a common sentiment among creative types, “Everything is grist for the mill.”
The original meaning refers to the corn that farmers bring
to mill to be ground into flour. The contemporary meaning is that none of your life experiences have to be wasted, no matter how painful or difficult. You can use them to tell your story and allow other people to relate and learn something about themselves. Award winning journalist, writer and filmmaker Norah Ephron, coined the phrase, “Everything is copy.” She meant that whatever happens, good or beautiful, bad or ugly, can be material for your work. You can paint it, write it, sing it, dance it or act it out. All the events in your life can be useful and when you see that you can turn something terrible into something inspirational, it won’t sting as much.
Two of my favorite spiritual leaders/authors, Baba Ram Dass
and Stephen Levine who are no longer with us, wrote a book together called, “Grist for the Mill.” Ram Dass regarded all of his difficult childhood experiences as grist for the mill, a way to use the events in his life – comic, tragic, boring or dramatic – for spiritual growth. You can use anything as a wakeup call. A famous guru said that when he finds himself at a red light, he uses it to remember to breathe. Whatever is going on, you can use your trials and
irritations as a guide to a better and more authentic life. When you let these events become your focus, you can see how they shaped you and helped you become who you are today.
A marriage might enhance someone’s life and fill them with
hope while a divorce might create a void that is impossible to fill. Or the opposite. But as an author, it’s all grist for the mill. When I sent my second husband packing, I was devastated. I took to my bed for days and grieved my loss while the author in me was noticing and sorting everything I was feeling into stories. With no effort on my part, life was showing me some remarkable things. The
holistic healer who was all about “natural this” and “organic that” brought me Xanax. Two friends had an argument at the foot of my bed while I was crying. My Italian hair colorist came over and said. “Don’t worry. We’ll make-a you blond.” I already was blonde.
I got conflicting advice from everyone. “Change the locks. Unfriend him. Call the INS and get him deported. Watch him come crawling back. Forgive him. Burn his clothes.” When I finally got up, I threw the clothes he had left behind in a black Hefty trash bag, left them for the garbage truck and went back to my life. I was minus a husband but I had more closet space and a great screenplay.
Author and satirist, Terry Pratchett, who sold over 85 million books in his lifetime, said, “I’ve lost both parents in the last two years and you pick up on stuff. That’s the most terrible thing about being
an author – standing at your mother’s funeral, but you don’t switch the author off. So your innermost thoughts are grist for the mill.”
When life throws things at you that you weren’t expecting, good or bad, think of them as grist, the separate parts that define the path of a human being. Each story exists on its own, but when you put them
all together and blend them seamlessly into each other, that’s the mill, the foundation that will grind and mesh your story into a whole. One event folds into the next. One story picks up where the last one left off. Nothing stands alone even if it looks that way. When you take everything in your life and mix it all together, elegance, imperfections and all, you are left with one perfect human life, the only one that is completely and authentically your own.