Once you make it known to the world at large that you’re a writer, you are probably going to hear this: “Have I got a story you should write.” I’ve heard that so often that I have come up with this standard reply, which you are free to plagiarize: “I know you do. Everyone has a great story to tell.” You must deliver this response without the slightest whiff of snark, as it is purely sincere and absolutely accurate. Everyone’s life is interesting. Life is interesting. Everyone has dreamed, everyone has lost, everyone has loved, everyone has been disappointed. It harkens to one of my mother’s favorite quotes: “Be kind. Everyone is engaged in a great struggle.”
The trick, of course, is to tell your story well, by which I mean tell it in a way that someone else can make sense of it. Interestingly, one key difference between the fiction writer and the memoirist is the fiction writer begins with a kernel of an idea and then adds detail, whereas the memoirist begins with a volume of detail and must reduce down to a kernel.
That kernel is the universal human experience. I have told friends good stories about my life and bad stories about my life, and the good stories always have the same thing in common: they aren’t about me. Yes, I’m a player in the story, but the story is just about life. The bad stories are about how I won something, or lost something, or was hurt, or wronged. These are stories meant to let my friends know how clever or how mistreated I was. Sometimes I don’t realize this until I get to the end of the story and by then, alas, it’s too late.
This is why I try, even in the whirl of conversation, to glance ahead before I begin a story. We all want our life validated; we all want to feel valuable and heard and seen. And yet our little battles aren’t the point. The battles are only metaphors for that most basic human struggle—to be at peace with whatever is. The question a story should answer is never were you right or wrong, but did you understand.