I’ve been teaching memoir for several years, and I’ve found that every student who comes to my class has an interesting story to tell. Those stories always involve suffering. Sometimes the source of that suffering seems obvious, like alcoholism or growing up very poor, and sometimes it seems subtler, like enduring a dying marriage or raising a troubled child. It doesn’t matter how the writer suffered, their job is always to understand their role in that suffering. If bad stuff just happens to you, there’s not much of a story to tell.
This is often very challenging for many reasons. A lot of people, myself included, can feel as if their suffering is a consequence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We do not notice the story we are telling ourselves about that time and place – that we deserve the sexual abuse, or that we are poor because life is unfair, or that love comes only to the lucky or beautiful. The story is always the true source of the writer’s suffering, as it is usually told long after the abuse or poverty or marriage has ended.
Learning to disentangle the stories we tell about our lives from the events of our lives is challenging enough. But just as difficult for many writers is their fear of blame. They may have tried to soothe themselves by blaming other people or fate or society for their unhappiness. Whoever or whatever they blamed became the villains of their lives. If they look for their role in their greatest suffering, will they become the villain?
They will not. They will instead become the hero. A story is not just about suffering and conflict. Eventually that story must end, and the best stories always end with peace and resolution. The author must also understand their role in that peaceful resolution, that they are exactly as responsible for their joy and satisfaction as their misery and disappointment.
Heroes, after all, are powerful characters. They are not victims, some potted plant of a person smashed by life’s indifferent storms. They are actors in their drama, and actors make choices. A writer must understand the power of their choices, that no one can choose their words, just as no one can live their life.
Fearless Writing Workshop!