“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou,
As writers, we choose our subjects in many ways. As a working author (I don’t have another job other than putting words to paper) sometimes my topic selections are very practical. I’ve written several books in the Orca Footprints series, for example (Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet, Down to Earth: How Kids Help Feed the World and Take Shelter: At Home Around the World). I love the concept of the series (non-fiction titles looking at complex environmental issues and asking the question, what are the things we need to live and thrive on our planet?) so it isn’t a stretch to want to dive into the research and then write books that are meaningful but also attractive and engaging. But truth be told, choosing to write another Footprints title is also very practical. The books have an audience and that means I will receive a royalty cheque and that means I will live to eat another day. Ok, I don’t eat days, but you get my meaning.
Though the process of writing any book is challenging for many reasons (this series of blog posts over the next month will touch on some of them), books like the Footprints titles, or novels for which I have a reasonable idea and a solid plot or a character I like, don’t keep me up at night agonizing over whether I should proceed with the project.
But there are other kinds of stories to tell, those that gnaw holes in your insides until you let them out.
But there are other kinds of stories to tell, those that gnaw holes in your insides until you let them out. Those are the stories that reveal things about you and your life, your beliefs, your fears. They are the stories that weigh heavy, that you agonize over how best to share or whether sharing is even appropriate.
Many years ago I heard an author speaking about stories like that (I sure wish I could remember who it was!) who said that keeping those most powerful of stories inside because we are afraid of revealing too much or because we are afraid that readers ‘won’t get it’ is a kind of narcissism. We imagine that our stories are so out there, so unique that nobody else will be able to relate. The opposite is true. We don’t need to have shared an exact experience with someone else to be moved, to learn, to understand, to appreciate the emotional truth that lies at the heart of the story.
Those are the stories we remember: they are the narratives that have the power to change the way we see the world.
If the story is written with integrity, with emotional honesty, we tap into the deeper emotional truths that make us human. And if we are brave enough to go there, those deeper emotional truths are what make the most profound impression on our readers. It doesn’t matter if one person has survived a bombing and another an attack by a dog and someone else a car accident – the raw underpinnings are the same – fear, coming face to face with our mortality, loss of control, and the randomness of unexpected events are experiences we all share at some point. We connect to these stories at that very basic level. We ask ourselves, what would I have done? We empathize. We imagine ourselves in similar circumstances. We weep. We laugh. We are inspired. Those are the stories we remember: they are the narratives that have the power to change the way we see the world.
For many years I have been careful about revealing too much of my own story or the stories of those closest to me. When I have tackled difficult subjects (suicide, poverty, racism) it has been done in the context of fiction. Now, though, things are changing. I’m getting older (nothing like being on the far side of fifty to make you realize there are a finite number of books left to be written) and I have stories untold inside me. As Maya Angelou says, it’s an agony not to let them out.
The big writing projects on my desk are all non-fiction and they are all causing me a whole new level of grief. I’m working hard in ways I’ve never worked hard before. I’m struggling to find the balance between digging deep and spinning a readable yarn. I’m writing about loss and failure, challenge and adversity, hope and bearing down. These are my family stories, my own struggles, and subjects that have remained tucked away and waiting for later for too long.
These manuscripts wake me up in the middle of the night. But they are also manuscripts that feel really good to finally, finally be getting my full attention.
Do you have a story inside you need to tell? What’s stopping you? Be brave. Let it out. Start today.
This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.
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