Like many writers, I often feel that my personal experiences are not very interesting or unique. That my “stories” have been written about in variation over and over again. It’s why I’ve always preferred writing fiction—there, I can spice up reality, manipulate fate, twist plots until the story rings with conflict and intrigue, and inhabit characters who have lived far more interesting stories than mine.
But then, on the Facebook page of my friend Rachel Thompson, author and Huffington Post blogger, a quote popped up: “Write what scares you.”
The words stuck in my throat like a piece of popcorn. Surely there wasn’t anything so scary in my life to write about. A happy, married mother of one healthy child living in suburbia.
I mean, sure, there are things in my past, you know—childhood, college years, even more recent than that, but no one wanted me to write about those things.
Wait a minute.
It was as though Rachel had her finger on the pulse of my (deeply suppressed) psychic issues. Because next, she wrote a wonderful post titled “You’re an Adult, Write Like One.” She quoted Lorrie Moore: “Write something you’d never show your mother and father” and Anne Lamott: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I wrote one tentative, tender piece for Rachel’s blog called “The Art of Lying and Stealing”…and then promptly experienced what Brene Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover”—a sense that now that you have aired personal information, the entire solar system or civilization as you know it will come crashing down on you. Your family will banish you, your friends will shun you, and you’ll gain a reputation for being one of those “confessional” writers.
And yet, if anything, the opposite happened. People responded kindly, a few that they never would have guessed certain things, most with gentle recognition that we all have stories we don’t tell everyone, and that we’re not as alone in them as we think.
And perhaps because this seems to be the heyday of the personal essay, or because friends have been encouraging me for years to write my true stories, I went with it. Last week the lovely Estelle Erasmus interviewed me for her blog and asked me the question: “Is there anything you won’t write about?”
Because, as she pointed out, I’ve written about a lot this year. Growing up as the child of an alcoholic (who has now been sober half my life); My father’s family secret; My sugar addiction as a child; My abusive ex-boyfriend; Why I used to loathe the PTA; How I struggle to be a good mother; My struggles to believe in astrology; My sticky relationship with my alcoholic godfather, and the death of my godmother; and my desire to be a better Jew.
Yes, there are, in fact, things I can’t or won’t write about because they tell too much of someone else’s story, stories I don’t feel I have permission to reveal just yet. But what I have discovered in this year of writing dangerously is that the more fear I feel about writing it, the juicier the subject turns out to be. I think there’s something deeply universal that lurks inside “scary” material. We all know what it’s like to feel afraid and vulnerable, shame and loneliness. And perhaps it’s when we are most split open, bared and unveiled, that we see each other most clearly, even though it pains us to reveal it.
I don’t regret a single piece I’ve published, even as I’m aware that they are only one version of every tale—that my story is not the whole story. I’m willing to be wrong. I know that I have, occasionally, told old stories of woe that are no longer relevant today (sorry Mom), but I also fall on my own sword. I’ve been immature and foolish, naïve and judgmental, and I hope that these pieces of my experience reveal that, as well—that when I write what scares me I try to stand in vulnerability, not judgment, and open up something small and tender that anyone, on some level, can relate to. May you join me.
Don’t forget to check out the WriterPath Plot & Scene Retreat, May 1-3. Early bird discount ends December 31st, 2014.
If you like what you’ve read, please subscribe to this blog or sign up for my newsletter. Also check out my books: Night Oracle, Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time and, Forged in Grace. For a dose of optimism, read my column, The Persistent Optimist, at Sweatpants & Coffee.
Photo, “Danger!” by Anita Burke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.