The Messy Middle: How death helped me find a new story

“Before you get to a new story, you have no story.” — Michael Margolis

The last time I went to see my shaman (a.k.a. 21st century Northern California therapist), we spoke again about purpose. He told me I’d been circling mine for years like a moth to a flame, getting a little bit closer to finding meaning with every turn. Sound familiar?

He told me about how in many villages in Africa before a child is born, a shaman divines the child’s natural gifts and shares them with the community. That way as the child grows up, its elders can guide her toward her purpose as she grows. In the West, we’re not given a story when we’re born — we have to figure it out for ourselves. This often means a lot of trial and error, which sometimes leads to a lot of unanswered questions around midlife.

It’s in that messy middle, some call it a midlife crisis or midlife awakening, where we lose sight of our old story. And it’s that in between place — that place of no story — where we can feel terrified and exhilarated. Where am I going? What do I want to do next? It’s also where a pivot is truly possible because we’re not clinging so tightly to who we were sure we were.

So how do you go from no story to new story? Here’s how it happened for me.

My dad was an opera director. I remember him wearing his beautiful brown Italian leather zip boots to rehearsals in the 1980s, which should have tipped me off that he was gay, too — but that didn’t come out until later.

When he got sick, I made time to interview him about his life. I knew my dad never saw himself as successful, but I also knew that he had worked all over the world with some of the biggest names in opera. There was a disconnect with the way he saw himself and what he was really about. I wanted to get an unbiased version of his life. I wanted to help him tell his true story.

Rebecca and her father

I learned that when my father was a young man, he was an incredibly talented French horn player. He studied with Dick Moore (first horn at the Met) and Arthur Berv (Toscanini’s first horn) at the Manhattan School of Music. He was also an excellent stage director. He founded two opera companies and worked with Pavarotti and Beverly Sills among others, in a creative career that spanned five decades.

He had an extraordinary life. And then he was gone.

There was a flurry of death-related activity for days after he died, and then the house became quiet again. That’s when I really started to feel the grief. And from that deep grief came the gift of reflection.

I was inspired to write down my dad’s story from a series of interviews I had done with him, my mom, and his husband. Writing has always been therapy for me, and arranging the world into stories is how I understand it. Putting his story to paper helped me see his life as a series of related events that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. What had felt like disparate experiences over his lifetime had now become a clear narrative, and it helped me see my dad’s gifts and purpose, which sadly I don’t think he ever saw for himself.

Inspired by the clarity I got from writing my dad’s story, I decided to turn that open, reflective gaze toward myself.

I surveyed my personal and professional life — all the choices I had made that brought me to that moment in time in my dad’s living room staring at his empty chair. Where had I been? Where was I going? What mattered now?


It was in the emptiness of that room, with the words of my shaman in my head as encouragement, that I started to look for patterns and my own narrative. I started to see subtle connections between all the things I had done over the last 25 years and what I was doing now. But more than surveying the things I had done, I was gaining clarity on why I had done them. I was getting clearer on my throughline — the connecting theme that holds the story together.

It was with this big picture clarity that I started to glimpse my purpose, and ideas began to emerge that pointed toward what was next. I was beginning to find the threads of a new story because I had given myself time and space to reflect on the old one.

It breaks my heart to think my dad died without seeing the full story and purpose of his rich, successful, creative life. I wonder how his choices would have been different if he had had the gift of a clear narrative.

Most people find it difficult to see the forest through the trees of their own experience, which is why an outsider can often see a clearer story of your life than you can.

Everyday I help founders, authors, and professionals clarify their brands and craft compelling narratives so they can find new customers, sell more books, and get better jobs. I know firsthand how hard it is to try to do this on your own — even I enlist the help of an unbiased observer to help me clarify my purpose and story.

What story loops have you opened? Which ones are not resolved? How are they all related?

With all these questions, the messy middle may feel uncomfortable, but it’s exactly where you need to be to connect the dots of your life so you can get to a new story.

Rebecca Williams is a story strategist and executive communications coach based in San Francisco. After her father’s death, she co-founded Storytree, a service that captures your loved one’s oral history by interview and saves it as a shareable audiobook.