As many of you may know, I run two businesses. I teach writing workshops—locally and online—and I also coach nice girls (and guys) who are sick of feeling trapped by their inability to tell the truth. Who want to learn how to draw boundaries, and say no.
Awhile back, I recognized an interesting similarity between my two sets of clients. Writers, like nice girls, often find themselves paralyzed by the fear of telling the truth. This fear translates into writers’ block and/or boring or confusing prose.
I also discovered that memoir writers, in particular, are often the product of dysfunctional families. Like nice girls, they were taught from childhood not to reveal their family secrets. They were told, “Don’t air dirty laundry.” They were discouraged from telling the truth even amongst family members. Even to themselves.
As you might appreciate, this old rule has a way of fucking up the creative works.
I often speak to memoir writers at local libraries and community centers. What I have to say about the fear of revealing oneself in writing is relevant to all who are afraid to own their truth. Here are some excerpts:
I believe that we are as sick as our secrets. I believe that in order to get what we want most in life—connection with others—we have to have the courage to tell the truth, regardless of who will disapprove. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We have to risk opening ourselves up to criticism.
Because to own your own opinions, your own story, is to set yourself free.
Putting yourself out there is the best exercise there is for standing in your own power.
However, it takes guts to have an opinion. I don’t care what you say, someone will decide that your opinion makes you a member of Al Qaeda. That’s just how it goes.
When you write, particularly memoir, you are announcing to the world that you have an opinion, that you have something important to say. And sometimes that will draw fire. Know that, and you’ll be Okay.
There are consequences to writing about yourself and others. Let’s not kid ourselves. But you cannot write well worrying about what other people think. You have to tell the truth and deal with it all later.
When I first began my memoir I was really angry. I wanted to let the world know what had happened to me. How badly I’d been treated. All the major players in my life looked like heartless animals. I looked like a sad little victim.
After awhile I began to recognize things about myself that I hadn’t before. I began to understand the role I played, the choices that I made, how I had been responsible for lots of mistakes. And suddenly those awful people starting softening up on the page.
The story became far less angry, and much funnier. It became interesting because it wasn’t so black and white, right and wrong.
One of the reasons people write memoir or personal essay is to learn about themselves and/or the important people in their lives. It is a journey of discovery.
Trust the process. Because when you first write your story, you will invariably be writing it in the “Look What Happened to Me!” mode. It is only after you have worked your way through another draft or two, that you start considering, “Look, What Happened to Me?”
Trust that you will soften. That you will understand all of your characters that much better. That you will develop compassion, regardless of what happened.
But you must tell the Truth. Write as if no one will ever read your words. That makes for interesting books.
If you don’t tell the truth, your story will be dead in the water. Take the pages into the back yard and bury it. Right now. Because politeness is boring.
Listen to me. Courage. Take courage. It is our job, our privilege, to allow others into our world. You are about to grow up when you begin a memoir. To become the kind of adult you could only have dreamed of becoming. Someone strong and empathetic.
There are people out there suffering the wounds and sorrows and terrors of existence who do not have the words to weather it, and it is the writer’s place to give expression to that part of experience–to provide a sense of what Joseph Conrad called the ‘solidarity of the human family,’ and to give forth nothing less than the knowledge that no one, in the world of stories and of art, is ever totally alone.
When you tell your truth, someone out there will read your words and feel hope.
They will realize that then are not as strange as they thought all along. They will no longer feel alone. Because you, Thank God, understand. Don’t you want that?
I love what Brene Brown says about telling the truth: “It’s crazy how much energy we spend trying to avoid these hard topics when they’re really the only ones that can set us free.”
All along you have carried in your pocket the key to set yourself free. Tell the truth. Write your way to it if you need to.