How to Find the Good in Bad Stories
Ever had an encounter with another person that you didn't try to make meaning of?
He didn't talk much when we met up, so maybe that means we're through.
I don't think she likes me because she didn't call back.
I feel like we're closer now given that she let me borrow her bike.
Well, the same goes for our wounds. When we undergo trauma, either emotional, physical, or psychological, we attempt to make meaning of it. That's just how we humans roll.
Yet the stories we tell about our losses, our pain, our abuse, also inform how we begin to move on from it.
On CBC's Unreserved, Beatrice Deer, a Canadian Inuk singer from Quaqtaq, Quebec, says she wrote the songs for her new album My All to You envisioning herself "...in a better situation in life."
She adds that her recent songs are about surrendering and letting go of the control she thought she had in a life filled with childhood sexual abuse, disfunctional relationships, depression and alcoholism. "When I understood it was in my power [to let go], that's when it all changed."
Without negating all that had happened to her, she was giving herself permission to write her own story, choosing an ending informed by her traumas yet not exclusively defined by them.
STORY Middle English (denoting a historical account or representation): shortening of Anglo-Norman French estorie, from Latin historia
Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, a family memoir, said her mom labelled all her children differently: Lori was the smart one, Maureen, the pretty one, Brian, the brave one. And Jeannette? Her mother said the only thing going for her was that she worked hard. Walls' book tells the story of her upbringing by Rex, her alcoholic father who was most likely bipolar, and Rose Mary, her mother, an artist and hoarder was also probably bipolar.
In a New York Times Magazine interview, Walls said, “We all have our baggage, and I think the trick is not resisting it but accepting it, understanding that the worst experience has a valuable gift wrapped inside if you’re willing to receive it.”
Obviously there are certain stories we can’t always tell or don’t feel ready to tell. And of course we shouldn’t share them if we don’t feel comfortable. It can even be dangerous for us to tell stories that we’re not ready to tell, because perhaps we still need to heal some wounds around these stories, and exposing them too soon may make us feel unsafe.
Also, if we haven’t quite worked out what the story means for us, then we may not truly see the story we need to tell.
We may also look for certain reactions from our readers and feel wounded when we’re misunderstood.
Healing from our wounds can take decades; a lifetime even.
Even though in The Glass Castle, Walls writes about her alcoholic father stealing her piggy-bank savings to buy booze, she says she had a special relationship with him that she feels gave her the will to succeed. Her memoir has sold 4.2 million copies and been translated into 31 languages.
If we’re writing a story involving others, say a family member, then we have to make that call about whether to write about them while they’re still living. Is it worth the risk? Perhaps no matter what, we need to tell our story whether the person is alive or dead, as it will allow us to get on with our lives. That’s a call we have to make when telling stories that involve others.
When we’ve healed the part of ourselves that's wounded, then no matter what people say about our stories or us, we’ll be ready.
There are many ways to begin to heal ourselves in order to share our stories with others--if that is our wish.
Recently, Adyashanti, American-born spiritual teacher and author of Falling into Grace, was on Oprah's Super Soul Sunday where he explained that there's often a negative energy or emotion associated with family and that family members usually share that energy.
To leave that energy he suggests the following exercise:
Get two chairs and sit in one of the chairs. Think of what kind of upset you're feeling, whether it be anger or sadness. Ask yourself who this upset brings to mind. Sit with that for two minutes and see the face of the person that the emotion reminds you of.
Get up and sit down in the other chair with the intention that you leave that energy behind. You'll start to feel a presence that's yours rather than the energy that you inherit from parents, partners or friends. You'll literally step out of the energy field and it may feel like a weight's been lifted.
Bless the energy that you left behind. Everything you blame you're stuck with. Wish it well and forgive it. All negative energy's looking for resolution.
Keeping a journal to write down your feelings is another way to help understand the pain you went through, make sense of it on your own terms, and come out the other side.
When writing your life story some questions you may wish to ask yourself are, What is the meaning of this story? How have these events made me the person I am for better or for worse? What information can I include when writing my story that would be of interest to someone other than myself?
The following are some great resources to consult when writing your life story:
The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart
Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past by William Zinsser
The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett
Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg
Journey of Memoir: The Three Stages of Memoir Writing by Linda Joy Myers
Photo by Toa Heftiba.