Rewriting History

Most memoirists are drawn to write about the most painful moments in their lives. The neglect, the abuse, the disease, the death, the poverty, or some combination of all of these serves as the dark backdrop against which the light that is memoirist’s life can shine brightest. But it is not so easy to revisit these moments. The imagination is so powerful and so immediate that it cannot differentiate between past and present. Merely remembering being told you are stupid cuts as deeply as the moment you first heard these words. How then to approach what is painful without suffering fully with it again? The answer lies in stories. What we call pain is only a story we still believe about the past. To be called stupid, for instance, is nothing but a story. Perhaps the memoirist didn’t pass a test and someone took this to mean she was stupid. They could have as easily taken it to mean she wasn’t interested in the test. The stories the memoirist is told, then, are nothing until she believes them.

Meanwhile, having lived many years believing this old story, the memoirist has begun to tell herself another story. In this story, her intelligence is an expression of her curiosity. By this definition, everyone is intelligent. She much prefers this story, though it directly contradicts the story about intelligence she was once told and believed. She so prefers this new story that she decides to write a book describing her journey from one story to another.

Yet despite her desire to live from this new story, that old story still lives within her. She had believed it quietly for so many years, it had infected her choices and perceptions continuously and insidiously. When she returns to retell that moment she first believed she was stupid, her faith is shattered. Her new story feels as light as a fairy tale against the hard, measurable truth of the old story.

No matter. Writers write to teach themselves to believe in what they know. The memoirist returns again and again to that moment, and each time the sting lessens until finally there is no sting at all. Her belief in the new story has finally eclipsed her belief in the old. This is sometimes called “rewriting,” which it is. History exists to be rewritten until it suits our present lives, so that what was once seen as faith becomes knowledge.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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