If you write long enough or live long enough, you’ll meet a story that won’t let you go. I’ve met a few of my own. And in conversations with other writers, I’ve heard this murmured again and again: there are stories that nag at us, tug us with a near gravitational pull. Stories that won’t let us ignore them. Sometimes we welcome them and begin the process of scribbling them down like there was nothing else we could imagine doing.
And there are those other stories too.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far about rewriting those stories—and my life.
First, write yourself a place of refuge.
I’ve been talking a lot lately about creative journaling. I spend a lot of time in my journal. It’s a place I go every day to practice focusing my attention on something beautiful, meaningful (ephemeral). It’s also where I go to lose myself in creative play.
But, from one human being to another, there’s another reason to spend some time with your creative journaling habit:
Sometimes we run into a story that grabs us. And it turns out, that story is not so easy to tell.
Here’s one small thing I’ve learned--it’s beautiful to take off on a writing adventure and to wander over rough ground until you’ve made it back home.
But it’s essential to have a place of refuge along the way for those times when you realize the road was longer or rockier than you thought.
So write yourself that place of refuge first. Or really, build one out of the odds and ends of daily life. Then you’ll be ready for any story that grabs you. The good, the ugly, the transcendent.
Because there’s one truth you can’t escape:
We’re all storytellers.
No one gets a pass. You’re telling yourself a story and so am I. We might as well come right out and say it.
And start thinking about the responsibility it lays at our feet.
Here’s a beautiful discussion on the many ways our lives are stories that we write ourselves by Emily Esfahani Smith in the Atlantic.*
The article explores some of the ways we rewrite our stories and our lives with a look at two films (The Silver Linings Playbook and The Life of Pi). Then it winds through plenty of research on resilience, perspective… and yes, writing down your story.
There’s a lot to love in this piece, but I’ll focus on what’s on my mind today: the importance of the stories we tell--or that we create. On purposeful ‘retelling’ in the Life of Pi, Smith writes:
Pi's resilience is incredible once you realize what happens on board the lifeboat and how Pi copes with the tragedy that he witnesses and endures. There's more to the story than the boy and the tiger. Though what really happened is terrible, Pi chooses to tell a different story. His parallels what really happened, but is beautiful not bleak, transcendent not nihilistic.
"Which story do you prefer?" he asks at the end.
Fiction may or may not be your favorite way to reclaim or retell your story. But the great thing about rewriting a little of your life in your journal is that you can try on many different kinds of writing styles, experiment, and maybe even have fun in your search for meaning.
What I always try to remember is this: in the end, the stories we tell ourselves are more than just the bare and lonely facts. We create them. And then we live in them.
Sometimes, telling your story takes hard work, imagination, and resilience.
Sometimes the stories that won’t let us go are downright daunting or exhausting. I’m convinced that’s because of the sheer creative work involved. Here are some things that have helped me use my journal to retell my story (or find the meaning in a story):
It really is ok to grab the strings of these ideas once in a while, play with them, and weave them together bit by bit.
It’s ok to start, restart, take breaks and let your story rest.
It’s ok to keep the story for yourself for a long time, or forever.
It’s ok if you still feel like you don’t know what happened, in fact...
Sometimes accepting the unknown is part of the story.
I’m thinking again of several conversations I’ve had lately, about the way we search for meaning in our lives--or the way we build it out of the finest scraps. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in novels, memoirs. So why shouldn’t it happen to you and me?
Of the stories that won’t let me go, I’ve found that most challenging to reframe are the ones with missing pieces. The ones where I don’t really know what happened.
It’s fact: some of our stories are co-written by others. Occasionally they’re written while we’re not there, or before we were born.
To take an example from my own collection--there’s the story of my husband’s car accident. (Notice how I keep returning to this one? Like I’m not finished with it, or it’s not finished with me).
One second on a rainy night on a highway in the South of France and suddenly to make sense of your life it feels like you need to become a novelist or a mystery writer.
Ten years later, we still don’t know what happened. My husband doesn’t remember the accident and woke up two weeks later to find himself in a new reality. The only witness was an unreliable narrator--a person who told first told the police he’d fallen asleep at the wheel but showed up for more questioning later and said he wasn’t sure after all.
The evidence was spotty and scattered. There was the police camera at the scene of the accident--malfunctioning? Out of batteries? Someone forgot to test the other driver for drugs and alcohol. The police could only confirm that it should have happened but didn’t. The only thing left was a muddled sketch of two cars on the side of the road rippled and dampened by the rain falling on the officer who sketched it. A judge (who we never met) interpreted this sketch to mean that the other driver swerved into my husband’s lane, pushing both cars off the road.
In some ways, the whole story is nothing but a jumble of second-hand accounts, missing pieces, unanswered questions.
So how are you supposed to find the meaning in your story when you don’t even know what hit you?
This belongs to you:
Here’s the thing: you can meet the pivotal person in your story face to face and not find the words to ask your questions. You can ask your questions and still feel unsatisfied with the answers. You can get a pile of documents and find out more details than you could ever use--and still not understand what hit you.
It’s still your story to tell. You decide what you make of it. Is your story about the search for what happened? A tale of hate and revenge? One of love and a renewed pursuit of all that is beautiful and meaningful in your life?
You won’t know until you write it. This is what keeps me going. This and one last thing I keep relearning every time I rewrite one of my stories...
You are not alone.
I bump into this fact day after day because I love stories: published and unpublished, written or spoken.
There is a special kind of beauty in the meanings we weave when we meet each other halfway. I’m thinking now of one of the (many) times that someone else offered me a surprise moment of understanding.
Last year I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir. Because I spent many summers as a teenager reading his fat novels and because the Shining is the film I used to watch on sleepovers with my girlfriends. You may know that King also has some experience with car crashes. Eventually, I stumbled unsuspectingly on these two sentences:
You try to tell yourself that you’ve been lucky, most incredibly lucky, and usually it works because it’s true. Sometimes it doesn’t work, that’s all.
And there it was, one small, missing piece of my puzzle handed to me across time and space. One part of the story I didn’t have to write myself.
What keeps you going?
First and very probably, you’ve met a story that won’t let you go. A story you can’t wait to (or can’t help but) write.
Then there’s the fact that writing the stories of your life (in whatever form you chose) lets you rewrite your life a little too--and add in a healthy dose of meaning, beauty where you can.
And then there’s this:
You never know where your story will lead--or who it may touch. As Sean Thomas Dougherty puts it in this poem**, maybe your story will find someone whose missing piece is
in the exact shape
of your words
Thanks for being here. If you feel like sharing, I’d love to hear what keeps you going, what stories are tugging at you…or anything you think I should add to my ‘to-read’ list.
And a special thanks to...
*Kate Fisher, for sharing “The Benefits of Optimism Are Real.”
**Veronika Palovska for sending “Why Bother” my way.
(No affiliate links, just awesome people).