Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Stories We Aren't Sure We Should Share

I am running a contemplative writing retreat right now on Washington Island in Door County Wisconsin. I run this annual retreat in an old house with a football-sized field looking out over Detroit Harbor. We usually have around a dozen students for a weekend, then the group shrinks down to eight or so as we sink in to an entire week together with the wind, water, our minds, and each other.

Most of my students write memoir, or at least personal stories. Perhaps because this is my main writing form, and I attract them. Or perhaps because deep underneath, so many of us have felt our stories are not welcome in the past, not something others want to hear, are open to receiving. The act of writing our stories - for our own sake, for an immediate audience, or for publication, can be not only therapeutic but also sincerely and deeply resolve a deep rejection we received from others at the times of trauma or difficulty.

For instance - I have a student writing about the tragic death of her sibling when she and the sibling were both young. It was her definite experience that no one wanted to hear about it - her mother didn't want to discuss it, none of her friends would touch it with a ten-foot pole. People would address it as tragedy, but not want to say any more. I had similar experiences with both of my parents dying when I was young - while people were sympathetic, they had limits, and often my peers acted afraid, as if talking about losing parents would make them lose theirs.

Often, when we experience great loss, trauma or tragedy, it is treated almost as if a contagion: if we contain it, don't discuss it, it won't spread. This mentality can last for a long time, causing us to block our own memories, refuse to share our feelings or experiences - of that time or any other later time in which we struggle - with others and even with ourselves. Even when we know we benefit from reading about others' struggles, still we worry that ours will only cause more suffering.

I am finding this experience echoed again and again in this particular retreat - not only how much we were not heard at the time - how our stories were not welcome, our feelings not allowed, our versions of the events seen as inappropriate - but also how that has contaminated our ability to share. So much so that even we run into when we do find people who want to hear - a retreat filled with other contemplative writers sharing deeply and directly with each other - we still are reluctant to believe what we have to say is something others want to hear.

Common resistance beliefs along these lines include:
-This isn't something good girls write
-No one wants to hear about this
-This is depressing and will only cause more suffering
-I don't have a right to write about this
-My perspective isn't welcome

It takes time and practice to integrate these seemingly disparate truths:
At one time, no one present wanted to hear what we had to say.
At this time, there are people who want to, in fact may need to, hear what we have to say.

It seems that as soon as we find a willing and receptive audience, our ability to share should be resolved. After all, now you have those witnesses you have longed for all this time. But the fact is, integrating the long-term rejection - including our own rejection of ourselves - and the current acceptance - which is likely still limited in scope, even if profoundly offered - takes time.

It takes time because the critic doesn't believe it, isn't convinced that these people aren't lying.
After all, they are consistent with the defense mechanisms, triggered by real life people who rejected us in some way, often people who had great power over us, or great sway. So why should a few peers now saying they really want to hear what we have to offer make a difference?

Over time, with practice, we soften to others' stories. We realize our lives, while completely unique, are not so separate from each other. Sometimes, through the practice of opening to others' seemingly taboo stories or shame-surrounded inner lives, we experience a by-product of compassion for ourselves.

This process takes time. We can feel shame that we can't accept others' acceptance of ourselves, setting off all the triggers and defenses again. Simply breathing through, watching with perspective and humor as we run ourselves through the same gauntlets, taking the risk to believe others care about our stories - all these are steps on the way to the deep narrative therapy that writing our own stories can bring to us.

If we do choose to publish memoir or personal essays, these steps are crucial. Otherwise, when the publication moments happen, we go through tremendous imposter complex (not to say that ever gets fully resolved!) and the exposure can plunge us into further fear and defense.

Even if you never share your stories beyond the page, allowing yourself to write them brings some space. But the extra step of reading them aloud to someone who can hold them for you, without judgment or opinion, gradually can help not only our own acceptance of our lives, but also others' acceptance of our lives, and, by proxy, our writing.

Acceptance may seem like a small thing - 
But I want to win a huge award! 
Be on the NYT Bestseller list! 
but for most of us, in the end, it is actually what we are seeking.

Do not underestimate the power of deeply accommodating all we experience and feel. In the end, this is actually up to us, and can only be given by ourselves to ourselves. It often takes others to help facilitate the process - people who are seeking mutual recovery, healing, and to write their stories in a way that causes deep healing.


  1. Thank you.... am confused by a letter I received today. This kind of helps put things in perspective.

  2. Thank you.... am confused by a letter I received today. This kind of helps put things in perspective.