Recently a new online friend and a member from one of the writing groups I joined posted a comment on the group Facebook page:
“I just read an ah-mazing article – simply SUPERB – and spent twenty minutes shedding tears because I can never get that good.”
Krithika, who gave me permission to use her name and the quote, went on to say she was doubting her ability to continue writing. Someone had suggested she just give up and perhaps now was the time to quit.
The group rallied in support of Krithika, writing comments of encouragement. Several shared inspirational quotes or told stories of how they overcame similar feelings. I think it worked because she has posted about writing since then.
As this was happening, I received an email newsletter at work from a development coach. One of his articles was about the importance of crafting a compelling message for nonprofit fundraising. He titled it “Own What You Know.” While the message was geared towards the importance of a good story in a development pitch, I began to think about the message as it relates to my blog and writing dreams.
When you write memoir, you often hear how important it is to “write what you know.” This advice, while key, doesn’t go far enough for me. The “own what you know” advice resonated because in order to write my story, I have to embrace it fully. I have to honestly peel back layers to explore truths I may not like in order to own my personal story. It is my story after all – and there isn’t anyone else who can tell it from my point of view with the same authority as me. If I hide from things I find unpleasant but which define and shape me, I am not being authentic and readers will think, “Haven’t we heard this story before from someone else?” I need to own my story first. The wonderful Marion Roach Smith said this week after week last year in her memoir writing class so I don’t know why it has taken me this long to internalize it. Maybe I was just scared to do the difficult work required to own what I know.
I looked at the comments offered to Krithika and they were all variations on this theme of authenticity and originality. Only Krithika can tell her story. If she quits, we don’t get the benefit of her wisdom. Sure, I can write about her for you, but my view of her will be colored by my own experiences and the lens I use to view the world. She can not see things exactly as I do, and she needs to use her own voice to describe her story so I can see it as she does. I may not agree with her opinion or point of view, but if she owns what she knows and shares it in her unique manner as only she can, I can grow and learn in a way I never would if I heard the story told by someone else. It may not be the best writing we’ve ever read, and she might need to practice the mechanics of how to craft a story. But it will be Krithika’s original story, which nobody else can match.
It’s easy to get caught in the trap of “So-and-so already said this and she said it better than me.” We let fear of comparison prevent us from sharing our story with the world in a manner unique to us. Last week I read a post by Ryan Hanley which reminded me it is more important to be genuine and real than to be original. Sure, having a new and original thought will get you attention. Yet, aren’t we really more impressed with someone who speaks honestly about their flaws, who doesn’t hide behind perfection, who doesn’t try to project a false image? The people who motivate me the most are the ones who don’t try to be motivational. The authors who admit fear of sharing their work (whose work I view as amazing) are more inspiring than those who act as if writing is just as simple as putting your butt in a chair in front of a computer or notebook and producing words with no fear at all. My butt is regularly in a chair in front of a computer, producing words. If it were just that easy, I would have declared myself a writer long ago!
I lived in that fear of comparison until last year. I read well-written blogs and books, doubting my ability to “measure up.” Then, several events made me realize being a slave to fear was holding me back. I regularly encourage others to live without limits – shouldn’t I be practicing what I preach?
If we allow the fear to keep our voices silent, we rob ourselves of the chance to help someone else. However, when we are brave enough to own our stories and share them with others, we create potential opportunities for growth and assistance. I shared a post last week about living like a puppy. When I wrote it, I had no idea it would be so well received. After spending a week with my sister’s new puppy, I just thought we might be happier if we acted more like the puppy. Several people told me the post inspired them to simplify, or make time for play, or take a look at how they spend their time. It makes me feel good to help others, and if I had let fear keep me from sharing those words I would have missed the chance to make someone’s day a little brighter or happier.
Writing may not be the medium you use to share your voice with the world. You might grab your camera and seek to capture the perfect shot. Or you might spend hours in a practice room learning the passage which will impress everyone at your upcoming recital. Whatever way you decide to share your story, I encourage you to take the time to own it. Because we want to hear it and learn from it. And nobody can tell it the way you can.