Maya Angelou once said,
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
If you came to my grief group, you might know why. We share stories, sitting in a circle, about our loved ones. Some stories are heartbreaking. Others are funny. But most of all, sharing our stories around the circle helps us heal. If we can’t tell our stories, we feel like water balloons about to burst. We just cannot take all these pent-up memories.
During one meeting, a woman was lamenting that since her mother died, she had no one to talk to about her day.
“Who will I talk to now?” she asked.
She had no one to tell her story. And the man next to her in the circle, who had lost his wife and also had no one to talk to, agreed. So we sat attentively listening. We let her talk our ears off.
Even outside of this group I meet a lot of people who have stories to tell, stories of heartbreak and loss, of triumph and determination.
Usually I am thinking, “That’s a great story. You should write that down.”
But I know what the response will be before I even say it:
“I don’t have time.”
“I can’t write stories like you do.”
“I don’t know how I’d put it into the right words.”
“Maybe someday…when I retire.”
These responses make me sad, not only because their stories will eventually be lost or forgotten, but because stories are one of the gifts to help us connect with one another, inspire others, and teach people what we’ve learned about life.
Stories help us share what has changed our lives for better or worse.
A good story motivates us to overcome hardship. It shows us how to make it through the worst season of life. It teaches us how to live transformed.Everyone has a story to share. But I’ve also learned that people are afraid to share their stories. I used to be one of them.
When I first got out of college, I didn’t believe that I was a writer, even though I had graduated with an English degree. I thought writers had to be geniuses, like Hemingway, Thoreau or Shakespeare. I believed “real” writers penned masterpieces and made a lot of money. (Oh my goodness, NO.)
I didn’t know that being a writer meant that you write. That’s it. Being a writer means you put words down. This was totally freeing for me. It suddenly unshackled me from all kinds of lies I had been telling myself about what a “real” writer was.
Call it writing. Call it storytelling. Either way, it’s about those moments that changed our lives, made us who we are, and shaped our futures. These are the kinds of stories we are aching to hear.
As William Faulkner said,
The poet’s, the writer’s duty is to write about these things. … The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
When I was in my 20’s, I read a book by Julia Cameron called The Artist’s Way that inspired me to write. Back then, most of my writing was in a private journal. It took a long time before I wanted anyone to read what I wrote, but Cameron’s book helped me to finally say, “I’m a writer, because I write.”
But I was still afraid to make my words public. I feared that people would say my writing was bad, laugh at it, or even worse, I might not realize how terrible it was. Then I read this in Cameron’s book:
You must be willing to be a bad artist. Give yourself permission to be a beginner. By being willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist and perhaps, over time, a very good one.
When I make this point in teaching, I am met by instant, defensive hostility: “But do you know how old I will be by the time I learn to really plan the piano/act/paint/write a decent play?”
“Yes ….the same age you will be if you don’t”.
So this is what you risk by not telling your story.
You risk growing old and never sharing your story with others. You miss an opportunity to impact people.
Most people are afraid to share their stories because of fear or rejection. But as Anne Lamott says,
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”
So let’s start somewhere. Let it be now.
This month, I want to encourage you to tell your stories, to take a risk, to do something crazy. It may not always be easy (good things never are), but I will be there with you–practicing vulnerable storytelling and offering some encouragement as you write your story.
Telling our stories teaches us about the important things of life–the ugly and the beautiful, what gives us life, what helps us press on.
Writing matters. Our stories are meant to be shared. Don’t hold back because of fear. There is always more room around the circle for brave souls willing to tell their stories.
Good Books on Writing
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (one of my favorite books on writing)
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (another outstanding writer)
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
What questions or comments do you have about writing and storytelling? Anything you’ve learned along the way about writing? I read every comment and love to hear your stories.