by Laura Rink
This month I took a writing workshop with Andre Dubus III. He said just because something happened to you doesn’t mean you know what happened. You must explore, with authentic curiosity, that particular event, and your place in it. This piece of advice resonated with the insight I gained last summer while writing a memoir piece for the upcoming Red Wheelbarrow Writers’ memoir anthology, Memory into Memoir, being released this September. I had had an unsettling experience and writing about it freed me from a skewed sense of myself that I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding onto for thirty years. This kind of writing is not reserved for writers but is for everyone.
Writing about your experiences creates, at the same time, an objective distance and a subjective intimacy. The physical act of pen to paper or fingers on keyboard allows you to view yourself as a character in a narrative and be the person who had the experience. Writing gives form to the images floating in your mind, and the emotions coursing through your body. Writing is a way to capture that voice in your head and prod it for truth.
Logically knowing something to be true—I am a capable person, for example—is not the same as feeling it to be true in your body and in your heart. Writing can help bridge that gap. Put yourself back in an event and using all your senses describe the scene, the other people involved and especially yourself. Be open to whatever arises—write without judgment, without preconceived conclusions. Take your time exploring the sensations, questions and ideas that present themselves. Writing about an experience with a strong desire to understand is a powerful way to learn, to find meaning, to discover your truth.
A caution: if you’re not ready to write about a particular event, don’t. Sometimes time must pass, a lot of time. Some experiences you may never write about. That’s okay. Honor yourself. Pick an experience you are ready to write about. And remember this writing is for you alone—it is not necessary that another person read it, unless you deem it necessary.
You can also rewrite the story you tell about yourself to yourself. The science, solid and anecdotal, behind this idea is explained in the New York Times blog “Writing Your Way to Happiness.”
There are similarities between writing a good story and living a fulfilling life. Slapping a label on a character or on yourself is a sure way to limit both. You tell yourself you’re lazy or unlovable or even infallible. Write to get at the specifics behind those generalizations—the things you, or others, do or say that make you view yourself that way. The specifics may or may not support the label. Either way there is opportunity for change and concrete ideas on how to do so. Author George Saunders illustrates these ideas in this video, which applies to everyday life as well as storytelling.
Jane Fonda said she wrote her memoir so she could figure out where she’d been, so she’d know where to go. Writing about myself has allowed me to move forward along a more personally fulfilling path. I encourage you to write about your past to see yourself as you are now with more clarity and to discover where you want to go from here.
About Laura Rink:
Laura Rink writes most days—dreaming up stories keeps her grounded in everyday life. She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories, writing with authentic curiosity to find out who the characters are and what they want. Her website LauraRink.com features an occasional blog and a picture of her calico cat.