Your Story Matters
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I'm helping a lady write a book. Which is to say, I'm editing her book. It's a memoir about her life, but I won't give away any of the juicy details. She called me the other night to chat about the book, her progress, her timeline, and the feedback I have so far. She was a bit concerned that readers won't be interested in her story, because it's a lot like a lot of other stories. Her concern with her uniqueness is not altogether unique, or surprising.
Many things we experience are, at the bottom, quite similar. Deep sadness, profound joy, heartache, triumph, illness, grief, the list goes on and on. We're all more alike than many of us think, and she was realizing, as many of us eventually do, that she was not as unique as she may have thought. I mean, she is and she isn't. "I'm just not sure the story is that interesting so far," she said.
"Maybe it's interesting to you," I answered, "but what makes your story different? A lot of people have moments of triumph, like you did, after a terrible thing happened. Show the reader how you got through the terrible thing. I want to feel how you felt, and go with you as you figure out how to triumph. See?"
She was on the precipice of quitting. Writing a book is challenging. It's time consuming and thankless and extremely frustrating. "I understand what you're saying," she said, "let me sleep on it."
I've run into this problem before, in my own writing often, and in the writing of others'. It's easy to identify what you want to write about, but sometimes it's hard to make that thing interesting or different. For every good love poem written, there are hundreds of terrible ones, lined with clichés and too many adjectives and a speaker blinded by the cozy feeling of infatuation.
But what this woman needed to know is that, even though her story might, at the very base level, be similar to other stories, or the lives of other humans, nobody else on this wild and weary planet could tell her story. No one has her voice, her thoughts, her dreams, her fears, her exact experiences. No one. And so, she is the only person alive who can tell her story, and it's up to her to tell it in a way that matters. If it only matters to herself, that's fine. I hope, and she hopes, that it will matter to someone else, too. And I'd bet my life that if 100 people read her story, at least one would find it interesting. At least one would find it important. It's my job to help her refine her story, but it's her job to get it out.
The same goes for you. If you've ever hesitated to tell your own story, this is your cosmic sign from the universe to let go of all your hesitation. Neil Gaiman said it best, "Make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do. The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can."
My client is hoping that her story will inspire and teach others. But even if you don't have such a lofty goal it might behoove you to tell your story. The telling of a story is not always an end in itself, but an attempt to release yourself from a previous version of you. To evolve, and grow beyond who you were. We tell our stories to transform ourselves, to transcend our experiences, to broaden our perspectives, to break away from a past that might otherwise imprison or enslave us. That's the only way to live up to our earthly potential. And that's why stories will always, always be important.
P.S. Enjoy some of my favorite quotes about story telling:
"We cannot wish old feelings away nor overcome them until we have woven a healing story that transforms our previous life's experience and gives meaning to whatever pain we have endured."~ Joan Borysenko
"The world, the human world, is bound together not by protons and electrons, but by stories. Nothing has meaning in itself: all the objects in the world would be shards of bare mute blankness, spinning wildly out of orbit, if we didn't bind them together with stories." ~ Brian Morton
"Sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story." O'Brien, 1998, p. 38
"Stories protect us from chaos, and maybe that's what we, unblinkered at the end of the 20th century, find ourselves craving. Implicit in the extraordinary revival of storytelling is the possibility that they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle, and end of our personal and collective trajectories. We have returned to narrative in many fields of knowledge, because it is impossible to live without them."~ Bill Buford
"To be a person is to have a story to tell."~Isak Dinesen