There will always be a reason not to tell your story. I had hundreds myself, but I decided to ignore them and, as a result, my difficult story has just been published by She Writes Press.
“Learning to Eat Along the Way: A Memoir” is an account of how I, as a twenty-something newspaper reporter, interviewed a visiting master of meditation and, three weeks later, joined his traveling staff; how I went to India to live in an ashram and—instead of enlightenment—experienced intense infatuations and life-threatening anorexia; how I came through it all and now, four decades later, am still on the same path and am quite happy about it.
I wanted to tell this story for my own sake but also because I felt other people might learn something from it—and enjoy reading it. Now that the book has been published, I’m grateful I didn’t give credence to all my reasons for not writing it.
Everyone has reasons not to write their stories. For the last five years, I’ve taught memoir classes at the South Whidbey Center, and in those classes I have heard hundreds of excuses for not putting stories into words, words that someone else—whether a person, a tribe, or humankind in general—will judge, dispute, dislike, ridicule or fail to understand. Here are six of the most common reasons and why I feel each of them is wrong.
1. I don’t remember enough to tell it. What you really mean is that you don’t remember everything, which is good, because you wouldn’t want to write everything. The amazing thing about memory is that you do recall what’s most important to you. Start with whatever it is you do remember. See where it takes you. If you do this, as you write, you will remember more.
2. My brother has a completely different take on it. Of course he does. Everyone has their own perspective. You yourself probably had a different view of it at various times in your life and perhaps you still do on any given day, depending on your mood in the moment. You can explore your own viewpoint; this is memoir, after all—your memoir. And, if you like, you can also talk with other people and include their perspectives. This often adds a nice texture—and it keeps you honest.
3. The story is just too complicated. So, you’ve gone from having too little to say to too much. Again, any moment in life has a million things you could say about it. What do you want to explore about this topic? Why are you telling this story? For whom are you doing this? Take these questions into account, and see how the answers bring into focus what you want to describe and what you have to say about it.
4. Part of what happened was subtle—it was in my mind—and I can’t write about that! Of course you can. You can describe subtle experiences of all kinds: emotions are subtle experiences, and you can also describe visions, premonitions, psychic messages . . . What you must do, however, is give your story “legs”—let it stand on the earth. By this I mean you must describe what was happening in the material world to trigger your subtle experience and you must also describe this experience fully enough that someone else can relate to it. If it’s psychic and you were surprised when it happened, you can say this, too. It helps.
5. My family would be furious with me. This can be a problem. I suggest you write first, talk with people after, and decide just how public you want this story to be after that. You should also bear in mind that it’s impossible to slander the dead and that, once a person is gone from this world, whatever spark of their individuation remains seems to relish truth-telling. (That’s what I’ve heard, anyway.)
6. There is no good place to begin. When you read a story, as the King of Hearts told Alice, you read from the beginning, through the middle, and stop at the end. That’s for reading. When you’re writing a story, you may start it anywhere you wish. Close your eyes and ask yourself, Where should I start this? See what comes up. Begin there.
Do write your story. I contend that if my story can be told, anyone’s can. And you don’t have to be a writer to write your story. Living it is qualification enough.
Image at top: The author, Margaret Bendet (photo by Bill Ruth)
After living in ashrams for three decades, award-winning journalist Margaret Bendet wrote a memoir about the surprises she found on her journey. Bendet now lives in Langley with a small white dog named Chou Chou. www.margaretbendet.com.
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