“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”
Merely typing out the title words for this post created a detectable twinge of anxiety. My insides start drifting toward a knotty macramé pattern, as if while out at a public market, I catch my reflection in window and realize that an ill-fitting black bra and its fleshy overspill are glaringly visible under my white t-shirt. And somehow, a photo of this got posted to social media captioned with my name and goes viral. It’s enough to make me want to head straight for the witness protection program.
In the years that I’ve published my own content for Off My List, only a few stories containing events about my personal life have seen the light of day. I have often revealed my thoughts and observations on various current events, but they’ve been expressed without much personal comment, and from the safety net of an intentionally wide point of view. Publishing ones feelings and beliefs can be a very slippery slope these days as it is, but that’s a subject for a different discussion. While the topics I’ve chosen to write about are themselves sometimes based on events that may be somewhat frightening, there is a big difference between writing about unnerving global incidents and writing about personal life events that leave one feeling unnerved.
On the surface, writing about one’s life is a common, centuries old practice that anyone with access to a pen and paper can easily manage. But the actual doing of this- and on top of that, making it public (and interesting!)- is extremely hard. Personally, I think biographies and memoirs are truly among the most fascinating types of book to read. Some effectively educate the reader on the topic of personal enlightenment, such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. Others tell of an extraordinary life in an extraordinarily well written form, as is Michelle Obama’s best-selling Becoming. Many are quite funny, and not just those written by comedians.
A very few seem to have it all, like those of the New York Times best-selling author Anne Lamott. One of my personal favorites, Annie is at once serious, funny, compassionate and insightful throughout the pages of her 18 or so published works. An evening curled up with the well-chosen words of Anne will keep you absorbed, amused and wanting for more. However the one thing that all of these esteemed authors and their books have in common is that each wrote their stories upon the deeply personal foundation of their life experiences. And after having read the great works referenced here and more, I’ve come to the realization that a sure fire way to improve and expand my own writing would be to let a little more of the personal, or even a lot more, show through in what I compose.
So what exactly is it that causes discomfort when writing about myself and my so called life? For starters, that I would dare presume to think that anyone would want to spend their precious time reading my personal narrative verges on the narcissistic. Or more simply put, who else really gives a shit? At the end of the day, I’m just a hack with enough change to fund a website. The talented novelist Brit Bennett once said that writing a novel is just spending years of your life trying to solve a series of problems that you created for yourself, and I think on several levels she’s right about this. A belief that unfortunately makes it harder to overcome the feeling that writing about yourself is nothing more than an exercise in self-absorption.
Another nagging road block to diving directly into topics that are revealing for the writer is the terrible but all too familiar suspicion that you are not good enough. Not your writing, not your stories, not even your character, which certain people in your personal life would be happy to confirm. Feeling not good enough brings us all back to the day we were not chosen to be on the team that all the good-enough kids were on. Getting past the anguish of those old feelings is a lifelong road to self-acceptance and a sensitive topic that I could attempt to address, but one that writers braver than I have already brilliantly covered.
So let’s assume I finally get past all that angst about exposing myself in my writing and am ready to take the next step. I’ve experienced what I consider to be some compelling stories to tell, based on past experiences over several decades of living, loving and learning more than I ever thought I was capable of. But what is the key to getting it all down, to making it interesting for the reader and producing work I can be proud of? I dunno- and that’s another potential anxiety-inducing question I think I’ll shelf for a while. The good news is I have started to face my first-level fears on writing, and that’s enough for now. What I do know for sure is that I can do one single thing, one day at a time to bring my aspirations and goals closer to reality. And that is to write. And write. AND WRITE.
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