Most of the clients I work with as a writing coach are working on some form of a memoir. Many of these writers have lived challenging lives filled with poverty, rape, alcoholic parents, drugs, long cancer treatments, religious cults, violent
husbands, or suicidal children. These struggles, though often excruciating at the time, became the defining experience of their lives, the crucible of suffering and relief that taught each person a lesson so valuable about confidence or intimacy or self-worth that they felt they simply must try to share this story with other people.
This is not always so easy to do. None of these writers want to relive their most difficult times, and yet storytelling is a form of reliving, bringing something vividly to life in the imagination. The writer must remember when they are telling this story about the time they felt unsafe, or unwell, or unloved, that they were suffering under a misperception, and that the truth is they are safe, and well, and loved. They must forgive their mistaken notions adopted in the heat of pain and fear, forgive the beliefs that colored the world or themselves ugly, and tell the story of a life made whole.
Then there are those writers whose lives were not so graphically hard, whose families were difficult at times but supportive at others, who married someone they loved, who did work they enjoyed, who had children they loved and raised with as much patience and compassion as they could. None of them were locked in a closet for a year, or had an eating disorder, or were abused, or lived on the street, or were addicted to anything. Still, these men and women also know life taught them something so valuable about where meaning can and can’t be found, or about love, or about the soul that they feel they must share their story with other people.
These writers often have a different challenge: they wonder if their story is worth telling. Specifically, is their suffering worthy of a story? For suffer they did. I’ve never met a person who hasn’t suffered, who hasn’t felt grief, who hasn’t been afraid, unsure, lonely, bored, or despondent. The difference is that for these writers, the suffering could not be traced to some gory or shocking event but only the cumulative response to trying and failing and eventually succeeding to find their own unique way through life. These writers sometimes worry about seeming privileged, that since they have “no reason to complain,” they don’t have a story to tell.
If writing and teaching memoir has taught me anything it is that all suffering is the consequence of a story we are telling ourselves. It is never what happened. If you fail your driver’s test and decide you are worthless, then you will feel the pain of worthlessness. It will be the same, more or less, as the child whose father tells him he is worthless. The pain is not a consequence of a failed test or a cruel word, but a thought, driven like a dagger in one’s own heart, a dagger we alone wield.
Moreover, to believe your suffering defines your life, that your scars are a kind of badge for the personal war you’ve lived through, is just another form of hierarchy, of making one person better, more deserving of attention, and love than another. The only thing that can possibly define anything or anyone is love. It is the end of every story worth telling. It is the light that all lives bend toward, the light went missing in the darkness of despair, the light is forgotten in the blindness of rage.
It is easy to believe that if you have no complaint if you’re not angry, if you don’t want things to change this instant, that no one will listen to you. It’s true that’s it’s sometimes easier to talk about your pain and suffering to gain people’s confidence and compassion. But your suffering is not what makes you worth listening to, and your scars are not proof of any value. What makes you worth listening to is simply that you have a voice, that you exist. To accept this is to find the greatest gift you can give any reader, for what is true for you must be true for them.
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