There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
- “The Way It Is” by William Stafford
This poem has been running through my mind over the past several months, mostly because I have been paying attention to a concept I think of as ‘the thread and the throughline’ lately.
As many of you know, I recently released a new book called The Seller’s Journey. You can read more about it here.
I was recently approached by a man who had just heard me speak at a conference about the emotional obstacles sellers face when exiting their businesses and how skillful advisors can help them successfully navigate through in ways that prevent seller’s remorse. He remarked that his life before and after the sale felt like completely different books, rather than chapters in a well-thought out story. I inquired about whether perhaps they were indeed different books, but that each might be part of a longer series, with some of the later books having not yet been written. The idea intrigued him and, together, we took a look at the narrative of his life, as his story had so-far been written.
In life, as in writing, there is a special art to weaving a story from what we are given and incorporating into it the unexpected twists and turns our lives take, especially when making the transition from something we’ve known to “what’s next” as most of my clients are doing.
Most of us imagine that the tale of our lives will emerge like the image of a craftsperson pulling together a fluffy pile of wool into a single unbroken thread. We assume it will be the kind of tale that proceeds easily from point A to point B with consistent characters. The implication is that we should expect a simple, linear progression with a series of events and emotional experiences that will make sense along the way and leave no gaps.
For some, it starts out that way. They just start writing with the single strand of thread that they are given and follow along as events unfold predictably.
That kind of simple tale can work to be sure, but few of us are offered the kind of structured life that affords us such an A-B-C narrative. Most of us, instead, are presented with a mish-mash of seemingly unrelated but somehow intermingled scenes, each with its own meaning and emotional impact.
At some point in our journey, we are likely to reach the heart of the story, a painful place where, like Hansel and Gretel, it’s common to find ourselves lost in the dark of the woods. It’s scary in there. Intimidating. Confusing. It’s easy to become frightened and lose the way as we try to move forward with a jumble of threads that seem tangled like the branches of a thicket. But the only way out, as you already know, is through.
That’s when it’s useful to realize that rather than a tale being spun cleanly from a neatly arranged pile of wool, we are actually weaving a story from the diverse threads of our experiences. Which means that if we want to tell a story of our life which has a coherent narrative, we need to envision a line that connects one point to another, a throughline, if you will.
It turns out that the best way to travel the length of your story is to grab hold of this throughline – the driving force of your life – and refuse to let go. There can, of course, be more than one throughline in a life, as in a book. But as you will see, there will always be one fundamental throughline. One that is brighter than all the others and which pulls the traveler – that’s you – through from beginning to end.
In the structure of a good story, as in a good life, the sequence of events in each individual story are not random. In fact, everything that happens does double-duty – both making sense as an unbroken progression and also as pieces of a greater story of purpose. Our role, as the tellers of our story, is to continue to make decisions that hew to this throughline, and find a way to weave the disparate threads into the coherent narrative that results.
Some writers think of the throughline as the embodiment of the main character’s conscious desire. The character knows what he wants and knows that he wants it. This personal hunger, shared by the viewer, drives the story and shapes the narrative. Have you gotten clear yet about what the conscious desire is that’s driving your story?
Typically, somewhere at the closing of the second act of a screenplay, or at the end of the middle of a book, which interestingly coincides with a time in mid-life for most of us, the character’s conscious desire breaks down. What she wants is denied, either by her own choice or by the force of outside circumstances. This breakdown exposes a deeper motivation that propels the character forward, a motivation of which she was originally unaware.
This thirst – this force that motivates the hero and drives the action – becomes a secondary, but equally powerful throughline. Just as a screenwriter constructs a throughline for his story, an actor constructs a throughline for his role in a play or movie. As he moves through the play, he thinks of the throughline as his objective. Each actor has an overall objective, a guiding light he follows throughout the play from beginning to end. Whatever situation in which he finds himself, he does not lose sight of this goal, the throughline. It is there to keep the actor on track, which is precisely what it does for a writer. Or for each of us living our life as we select the threads to weave into our lives with the guiding light of our choices.
This is especially true for those of us in periods of transition.
Allow the Throughline to Evolve
Ever try to read a book where everything the character did was predictable? No twists and turns? Hard to drag yourself all the way through it, isn’t it? But, equally difficult is a book where the motivations of the characters seem chaotic, disjointed or flat out unrelatable to you as a reader. We appreciate an air of curiosity about how it all ends. We enjoy seeing the unexpected ways a character grows from adversity or puts a specific talent or lesson to use in a novel way. That is where the magic happens. In a book and in a life.
Together, this man from the conference and I played a bit with how the seemingly loose ends and dangling bits from a prior part of his life might still be spun and woven into the rest of the work of art that is his life. I told him that this has been my own experience, finding the novel ways to weave unexpected elements into the fabric of my life to create a coherent narrative that returns again and again to the throughline of my life.
We noticed the many different hues of threads that each of our lives contain and how each of us displays a preference for more simple or complex patterns as we weave. To someone who has not yet discerned the pattern, the work in progress upon the loom can appear chaotic and disjointed, but to the weaver there is a pattern – one that continues to return to the throughline.
Even seemingly random or broken threads have a connection to the whole if we search for them. The pieces came from the same person and can, if we take the care, be woven in a way that affords a unique perspective, a pop of character or a recurrent theme or imperfection that is incorporated into the whole. Think about how there are two sides to a tapestry. Often the side that isn’t on display has a series of knots and, sometimes even, tangles. The presence of those imperfections doesn’t mar the beauty of the tapestry but they are the signs of the weaver’s struggle while creating the work. Nothing is cast aside from a life, especially one that is in the midst of reinvention.
The throughline is the invisible thread that holds the fabric or the story together, where each of the threads connect and weave into the bigger pattern.
In fact, once you are able to spot the pattern, you’ll feel awe for the work of the weaver or for the storyteller. Catching sight of the throughline in your own pattern will inspire a sense of relief and suddenly it will feel easier to explain your changing path and heart to yourself and those around you.
The key is to remember to allow your story to evolve. Rather than repeat chapter after chapter of the same monotonous tale, recognize that you are writing your story as you go. So write it in a way that reflects the motivation by which your heart is actually most delighted and fulfilled in its pursuit.
Even if you have to explain to others about the existence of the thread and it’s hard for them to see, never let go of that throughline, it’s what keeps you from getting lost.