The Trouble With Telling Your Own Story

Yesterday Books & Such had a good post: A Complicated Genre – Telling Your Own Story about the unique challenges that people who choose to write about their history of abuse face in finding a market and audience for that story.

For me, that tied back to the post I wrote a few days ago about people’s choosing to die when dealing with illness.  (In that case, my grandpa, my mom, and my dad.  Although, as mentioned in that post, my mom ended up going through with the surgery and is still alive and well today.)  And it also tied back to one of the comments I received on that post.

So, the following is partially writing-related, but also life-related as well.

The year after my father died, I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories.  All of it revolved around his death.  Not the many happy times I’d had with him before that time, but the few hours or days around his actual death.  Because the experience of watching him die was so overwhelmingly emotional for me that it blacked out what had come before that.

It wasn’t that I didn’t remember how wonderful a father he’d been or that I didn’t treasure those moments we’d spent playing chess or cribbage or having a late dinner after dialysis.

It was just that every time I thought about him, that image of him lying there in a hospital bed–delirious, jaundiced, a breathing tube down his throat–would flash across my mind and drown out all the rest.  Still to this day that final memory of him no longer being there even though he was alive is probably the most powerful memory I have of him.

And, if at any point in the first five or so years after he died I had tried to write about him, I wouldn’t have been able to do so effectively.  My view of the past would have been too distorted by that memory.

I don’t know why this happens, but it does.  The really ugly, really bad memories can drown out the wonderful and amazing memories.  You see it often with people who are divorcing–at some point in time they were deliriously in love with this person who they now see as the personification of all that is wrong in the world.

Strong emotions cause us to lose our balance.

A number of years ago someone I knew gave me a first chapter in a book they wanted to write.  It was going to be about their first marriage to a man who was less than a nice person.  (My polite way of describing a drug-addicted, abusive psychopath.)  The writing was powerful and dark, but the problem was that there was no balance to what she was writing.

At some point she had been a naive seventeen-year old who fell for this charming, good-looking man.  She’d loved him enough to throw away plans of college and run away with him.  But the pain of what came after overshadowed her memory of how she felt before she knew the truth about him.  Which meant that when she tried to write her story all she had left was the darkness.

And for anyone other than the person who lived through it, that level of darkness is just too much for an outsider to handle.

I’m now eighteen years past the death of my father and I still wonder sometimes if I have the balance I would need to tell his story.  In a certain sense, we never have that balance.  Someone telling their own story is always a consummate liar, because their experience is filtered and altered through their own perceptions and own agenda.  We think we know what we felt at a certain point in time, but we don’t.

(I can vouch for this because I have journals that I can look back at that state exactly how I felt.  Interesting stuff…but not healthy to look at often.  Because sometimes time also lets us forget the horrible things people we love said or did.)

So, to wrap this up.  For anyone who is remembering a situation that was really dark for them emotionally–a death, a relationship, what have you–try to push past that darkness.  Try to find the balance.

Some things are just so dark there is no balance.  But that’s not usually the case.  And, if it is, there are hopefully other ways to balance that darkness.  Other friendships.  Other bright moments in life that can be set against those dark moments.  Even something as simple as a gorgeous sunset or a mountain lake.  Or a small act of kindness in an otherwise horrible existence.

Find the balance.  It will help you and it will help others to hear your story.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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