We all have a story.
Yours might be of loss, confusion, or upending heartbreak, a crisis that brought you to your knees. Maybe you lost your child, or your marriage fell apart. Maybe you’re a survivor of the most brutal abuse.
Whatever your story is, it continues to have you in its grip. It’s the one you may have been writing for decades.
Part of the privilege of being a writer is the exquisite urge to excavate our experiences, to knit the disparate fragments together in a tapestry that results in something redemptive and beautiful.
We strive to make meaning of grief, transgressions, confusion, disappointment. We wrangle order out of the messiness of our childhoods, reconcile all the ways our parents in covert or overt ways abandoned and engulfed us.
This is the writer’s impulse – to probe significant events that demand to be looked at over and over, ever more deeply, from many different angles.
It doesn’t matter if we’re writing fiction or memoir. Ultimately, through the writing – and the re-writing in particular – we are all trying to move towards self knowledge and wisdom, some radical self acceptance, a place of salvation and healing. To arrive at some sublime truth that is wholly, inviolably our own.
But here’s where some of us go wrong.
We write only about what happened.
We write from a place of rage or grief.
And while we may be justified in having those feelings, it makes for a story that readers don’t care about. Because nobody is interested in reading about some disempowered person. Maybe your Dad left you when your were five. Yes, you should be angry. But that anger is not empowering you in the least, even though it may be potent start up fuel for your story.
Anger, grief, even love on its own has a numbing effect on your reader.
That doesn’t mean you should let whoever wronged you off the hook. It’s not about forgiveness so much as trying to understand what happened. And then finding your own culpability in what happened to you.
This is challenging, gut wrenching work. It’s why writing our story is so challenging. It’s easy to point the finger at the person who hurt us and say, “Look what you did!”
It’s harder, and ultimately more enriching to explore what part we played in that story. To plumb the depths of that pain and examine the crazy and self destructive ways we reacted to whatever happened.
Voice emerges from penetrating attention to what it all meant.
We can dwell all we want on how someone betrayed us. But the more painful thing to come to terms with is how we betrayed ourselves in the process.
That’s why it’s always more comfortable to blame the other for the demise of a romantic relationship. And while your partner might have behaved horrifically – she cheated on you, let’s say, or left you to marry someone else six months after you sold all your possessions and moved from Canada to Kansas to live with her – the onus is still on you.
To write the most fascinating story, you need to discover how you co-created the dynamic, the covert ways you played out your childhood story and cast that person in the co-starring role. It’s the reckoning of how you reacted to what was done to you, or even how you unconsciously courted those events to happen in the first place. It’s the actions you took to rise from the ruins of that experience.
Here’s where your story gets really compelling.
Because until you look at how you participated in what happened to you, or how you self-sabotaged as a result of what some one else did, nobody is going to give a damn.
Because you are still denying your story. You’re giving someone else carte blanche to write the story for you.
As Brene Brown says, “When we own our stories, we get to write the ending.”
It’s not about what happened. Better questions to ask of your story are “What have I learned about myself through this heart wrenching experience? How did I grow?”
You won’t discover any of this until you’re deep in the throes of revisiting your material over and over. This is the pain and the pleasure, the surprising reward of rewriting.
We rewrite because we didn’t have the courage to face it the first time.
Your story matters because by writing and rewriting it, by turning it this way and that, by going to the heart center of that pain, you come out on the other side with wisdom, open heartedness, and compassion. Compassion for the people that hurt you to the core – for surely, they’re hurting, too – and most important, compassion for yourself. When you radically accept yourself, you’re free from the shackles of that limited story. You get to write a different story from a place of empowerment.
As Vienna Pharaon says…
“There are going to be some tragic parts to your story. Some details that just don’t shine on their own. But what there will always be is an opportunity to grow from them. To rise up. To rise to the occasion. To write the story of “this is what tried to keep me from stepping into my greatest self, and this is how I told it to ‘sit down.’”
This is where your story gets irresistible to your reader.
This is what elevates your story to a work of art.