Finding your voice through the profundity (and mundanity) of experience
Ever since those first days of writing in school, I was told “you are a good writer.” I scored high on any writing assessment throughout my educational experience, and then went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy, which of course involves a boatload of writing. It’s pretty difficult to get away with a dissertation that is written poorly, at least in my discipline.
Still, I never really felt like the real me shone through anything I wrote. There were occasional moments of authenticity, where my words revealed my vulnerabilities or provided glimpses into the deepest corners of my mind. Most of the time, however, I was writing to earn praise. Whether to earn a grade, a degree, snag a publication in an academic journal so I could put another line on my C.V., or get a job — I was always seeking the approval of others. In so doing, there were very few times when I was not engaging in “performance writing.”
Sure, I still have to perform academic philosophy, which has an absurdly long list of gatekeeping requirements for what even “counts.” Now that I’ve earned tenure, I am less restricted and can push boundaries a bit more, but there are still clearly defined “performative rules.” It reminds me of this Jim Morrison quote:
“Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending — performing. You get to love your pretense.”
I’ve found a way, nonetheless, to write my truth, in all its messiness, and without pretense, which has been tricky, to say the least. Because how can you succeed as a writer in a world that simultaneously says “give us authenticity and raw emotion but also give us polished according to some arbitrary standards?” The shortest answer I can give is the often misattributed quote, “write drunk, edit sober.” Not everyone lives by that rule, however (Hemingway actually refused to write drunk), and honestly, editing the stuff drunk you wrote is often more trouble than it’s worth. So here is a longer, more complex answer, that will take a little more explanation: live life.
Life is full of stories yearning to be told
A good story can take many forms. I have the utmost respect and a great deal of envy for talented fiction writers. After having sat down several times to write a fictional novel and quitting as many times in frustration, I decided it was not my thing, at least not at this point in life.
Non-fiction can be equally gripping. As an academic whose first book is just about to drop, maybe I’ve been telling myself this a bit too often just to bolster my own belief that I’m not the only human obsessed enough to write and/or read a book about the tight symbiotic bond between humans and dogs. I will literally read anything on that subject because to me, that is one of the great stories of human nature — how we became ‘us’ by hanging around canines for 15,000 years.
The other kind of non-fiction that can be extremely compelling are personal, real-life stories, as so many Medium members already know. (That’s why many of us ended up here in the first place.) But it’s hard to write a good story about your life if you have not actually lived. This doesn’t mean you will have nothing worth writing until you reach old age. Nor does it mean that unless you have suffered unimaginable grief or reached near-impossible goals you have nothing interesting to say. It just means you need to truly live and appreciate all the ways experiences — from the everyday humdrum to the self-defining moments — can be transformative. You have to find the nuggets of wisdom in the mundane. Find the triumph in overcoming obstacles. Find the healing in the heartbreak. Let those slices of your life bleed onto the paper in all their complexity. Weave them into your most authentic narrative and believe in the value of your insights.
Living is not the same thing as existing
This rather cheesy adage has some deep truth to it, for me at least. What I said above will not just magically happen if you don’t sink your teeth into life and be ready to feel it all. Good stories come from people who have taken risks, failed miserably, had their lives turned upside down, loved fiercely, and maybe even stared down their own death on one more more occasions.
You cannot write your life if you do not see it as a worthy of living to the fullest.
Good stories also come from being able to appreciate the magnitude of all the experiences situated between those massively life-altering moments. Like the time I sat with my infant son and took pictures of him, just moments before CPS unexpectedly showed up at my door and began a completely unnecessary and invasive investigation into my family. That story remains immensely painful and writing it was actually a form of therapy for me. Writing trauma can be helpful to the person who experienced the particular trauma, but it can also help others who might not have the courage to tell their own story just yet. Others’ stories can build us up, give us strength to form our own narrative, and find a path to healing.
Most importantly, regarding my traumatic story of the wrongful CPS investigation, it indelibly etched in my mind the moment just prior to it. The pictures I have of my child that day are reminders of the pride I have being his mom, the utter joy he brings me, the intense fear I had at even the slightest chance of him being taken from me, and the incredible strength and resilience I have gained from the whole ordeal. Those pictures are a story to be told themselves. But they were just a regular moment in my everyday life as a mom to a 3-month-old. Until they weren’t.
Someone once told me that having a child is simultaneously one of the most mundane things in life because it happens literally thousands of times every day, but also one of the most profoundly transformative things that can happen to an individual person. It is in reflections such as these that stories are born.
My uncle was recently featured in a magazine dedicated to life in the town of Idyllwild, California, where he lives. Though I’ve known him since he first held me at 6 weeks of age, I was struck by awe, yet again, at the life he has lived. It is unsurprising that he is often referred to as “Idyllwild’s Great Storyteller.” He is an exemplar of precisely what I’ve been saying here— great stories are not just about those touchstone moments that define who we were, who we are, and who we will strive to be. Some of my favorite stories my uncle tells are these little vignettes, like the ones about the hikes he’s taken or the time he protested against Nixon. His stories are so special to me that I am compelled to sit with him and record them all before it’s too late, just so I can relive our time together for the rest of my life. Maybe I will even write a book about Idyllwild’s Great Storyteller one of these days. He has always lived life with the volume turned all the way up. He does not merely exist. He lives. And his stories will live on well beyond his physical presence.
I end with this simple idea: it’s all important. Every watershed decision, the all-encompassing grief of loss, every quiet moment of self-reflection, each stubbed toe, and every seemingly inconsequential piece of cake shared with a close friend. These are all stories to be told within the greater narrative of your life and within the story of life itself.
But remember, you cannot write your life if you do not see it as a worthy of living to the fullest. You will not write good stories if you merely exist as a blip in the universe. This means you have to dig deep into yourself and find your story. You cannot write someone else’s narrative and you most certainly should never let anyone try to write yours.
Last, feel it all. Don’t just chase the highs and avoid the lows. The bad shit is going to find it’s way to you. No one is immune. So don’t run from interpersonal conflict and don’t shy away from the really hard conversations, especially the ones you need to have with yourself. Every emotion that fills your brain is just as real as the next and the more you allow yourself to feel all of them, the more real your writing will become. Demand that people fall in love with you, not the perfectly polished performance you keep trying to give them with your writing.
But also, edit when you are sober.
Michele is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Arkansas State University. Her book, “Minding Dogs: Humans, Canines, and a New Philosophy of Cognitive Science” with University of Georgia Press, will be out in early 2021. Besides writing about dogs, she writes about life, all of it.