The biggest epiphany I had about my writing in the last year is that there is nothing special about my story. This sounds like a terrible epiphany, I realize! But it was so liberating. This episode covers how the impact of our writing comes from the meaning we make of events, feelings, situations—not the “specialness” of our stories.
Resources for This Episode:
I mentioned Vivian Gornick’s book, The Situation and the Story in this episode. It’s an excellent book that helped me confront the call to make meaning of events in my memoir, versus simply retelling hard stories.
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[00:00:01.020] – Rachel Thompson
Welcome luminous writers to the Write, Publish and Shine podcast, I am your host, author and literary magazine editor Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world in each episode, we delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication and the journey from emerging writer to published author.
The biggest epiphany I had about my writing in the last year is that there’s nothing special about my story. This sounds like a terrible epiphany, I realize, but it was so liberating. Let me explain.
The message that my story isn’t special landed the hardest on the day I spoke with an old friend who asked me, she knew I was writing a memoir, and she asked me about it as I summed up some of the themes for her, which were feeling unlovable and unloved, the isolation of grief, I could sense her growing increasingly uncomfortable, shifting in her chair. Now, I’ve known this friend for decades and she has a lot of stock in the bank of my trust.
So I knew the tension I felt wasn’t because of the themes themselves. She wasn’t uncomfortable with the idea of discussing grief or lovability and writing. And I also knew it didn’t come from mistrust about my ability to write this as someone who supported my writing in my first book. It was something else I took a long breath as a spot of dread put in my stomach, but I wanted to hear whatever it was, so I asked her for her honest feedback.
“Don’t most people feel those things?,” she said. “Isn’t that the human condition?” And then she immediately apologized, worried that, you know, she kind of pulled the rug out from under me. Her words might have thrown me off, were I not really solid about my writing and already have done a lot of work. I’ve been workshopping pieces. I’ve been really reflecting and preparing the work for eventually seeing the light of day.
And I’ll give a side note here, because I think even with all the trust that I have with that friend, I would never share themes in a story with anyone who wasn’t also working hard on figuring things out in their writing. This is a friend who’s not a writer. And so I would never do that if I wasn’t already solid with my project. I think it’s really important to kind of keep those things close to the chest, sharing with other writers in a capacity where you’re both being vulnerable and sharing what the initial stages of a project are. But anyway, at this point, I was at the stage where I was ready to start talking about the writing and willing to share that.
Back to her point, though, which was: “Everyone is hurting and suffering, feeling lonely and alone, and this is true all over the world.” “So why write about it?” was the implied question. I didn’t hesitate in my response. And I do chalk this up to having done all that work and being really feeling more solid in my project.
I said, “Great, those are the people I will reach with my book.” Because she’s right, the themes in my writing aren’t special, they’re universal.
When it comes to grief, it’s either come for us or it’s coming for us and none of us truly move on from it. I spent a lot of years feeling unique in my grief. I would think, well, I’ll get over this loss and then I’ll be able to write about my life again. I thought I was special. Lots of people told me I was. You’re so strong, they’d say, which I realized later was more like hoping and praying that though I may bend for a while, I wouldn’t break. The more I opened up and shared about grief, the more I found other grievers and the more I realized I’ll never really move on. That’s not what happens. We move through grief, not on from it.
That’s not to say I don’t have moments when I unkindly say to myself, why can’t you just get over this? Why are you still stuck here?
Which brings me at last to what is special about my writing, my ability to stay in those moments. I stick myself back into those feelings and situations and I explore them bravely. Disenfranchised grief weaves its way through all my writing, I’m writing about a big grief event, but also about other, more insidious sadness that comes from feeling alone in the world in a way that almost doesn’t make sense, or maybe it makes extra sense in this rollercoaster of a year.
We had a pandemic and its fallout exacerbated existing inequalities. And we also have the other pandemic of violent policing of racialized people, particularly Black and Indigenous folks that many of us are just facing up to this year. I know I’m not alone among writers wondering whether we should be writing at all.
Like many writers lucky enough to weather through most of the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, I’ve also had thoughts about that validity of my writing. I feel at times like I’m fiddling while Rome burns, playing amid destruction and chaos. Yet, I keep coming back to the same conclusion about writing that it is essential for us all.
I believe when I’m mindful of my many privileges, I can create space for marginalized writers rather than gobble it up. I believe writing lets us find and use language to tell the unvarnished truth. Writing lets us speak truth in the face of horror and injustice. It lets us bear witness and record events with hope for a better future. Writing can remind us that life matters and doesn’t hope feel downright revolutionary after a doomed scroll through the news?
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What you write tells us what it means to be human and hopeful, this is true even if your characters have unnatural powers or you’re writing to reach a different time where you’re sharing the ways, our current reality has changed you or your writing as a witness to horrifying acts. This idea of writing as witness, writing for change is something that I spoke with Maya Marshall from [PANK] magazine about way back in Episode 17 of this podcast, that would be well before this 2020 year of pandemic.
Maya Marshall said, “I don’t want to say it’s not a good time for love letters for sure it is. It always is. But we should also be mixing in moments of joy and contentment and status quo invectives for shifts and change and accountability, because we have to balance not just living our lives, which is important and hard to do for a whole bunch of bodies in the world, with changing how the world in which we live functions.”
This is 100 percent of what I’ve signed up for is writing that can change the way in which the world we live in functions.
So bringing this back to my friend who helped me have this epiphany about my writing and how it’s universal, not special.
I want to be fair to my friend, too, because the epiphany actually began really when I was reading a book called The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. That book talks about the difference between what is the situation, the plot points of your story versus the story, the meaning that you make. Reading helped me recognize that all the plot points in my memoir, no matter how significant to me are only situations until I make them into a story. It primed me to take what my friend had to say the right way, because I already knew that the impact of my story will come from the meaning I make of events, feelings, situations.
And since writing is, in its essence, a conversation, what will make it special is how I reach out to connect with readers. And linking back to what Maya Marshall said, what will make it special is how I write in a way that creates that space for us to change the way that we live in the world that we live in.
The details of my story are mine alone and won’t be something that everyone is going to relate to, but I will reach readers by expressing honest experience and honest feeling. The specialness of my writing relies on knowing if I can bring a reader into my worldview with honesty and integrity.
Because they will recognize the terrain of my story, my readers will only connect with it if they feel it is true, they will want something deeper than just a chain of events, something true about the world that might help them make meaning too, because there’s nothing special about my story, even as it’s uniquely mine. I know I have readers who need to hear it.
If you’re wondering about the specialness of your own story, whether you’re writing from your life, writing memoir or poetry, or you’re writing fiction or fiction, or autofiction, as a lot of writers do meaning writing that’s about them, but off-kilter and fictionalized, too. Here are a couple of questions for you to think about for your writing: how is your story not special and therefore universal? What conversations are you starting with your writing? And how is your writing, reimagining the world that we live in?
I hope these questions and this episode helps you have your own epiphany about the importance of your writing.
The Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is presented by me, Rachel Thompson. You can learn more about all of that I do for writers to help them write, publish and shine at RachelThompson.co. If you learn something from this episode, if it helped you with your own writing, pass it along and share it with other writers that you care about in your community.
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And just keep on keeping on. Keep writing.