The Toughest Life Stories to Write

Many of us have hair-raising stories that have never been told. Veterans find it hard to articulate the intensity of war they experienced. Former addicts worry that their redemptive words might sound too preachy. Survivors of family violence do not want to embarrass anyone. Their life stories remain silenced.

My life story writing classes usually have about ten participants. We share one theme per session; it could be about family, work, social, spiritual, or personal values. At some point during the program, usually around the fifth class, the trust that has been developing results in one or more students sharing very personal information. It is often about betrayal in marriage, or a profound disappointment with a son or daughter. Surprisingly, this revelation is met with nothing more than quiet acceptance and reaffirming comments. Jim Birren, founder of Guided Autobiography calls this the “Oh” phenomenon. The person suddenly understands that his or her story could easily be one shared by others in the group. Our life journeys often intersect. The irony is that no one is encouraged to reveal such information. Sometimes it just happens.

When do we tell particularly tough parts of our life story? Many life story writers will say that you must always tell the stories – that you must be honest with yourself. But first ask: Who will be reading this? Is it for my children, or perhaps my still very young grandchildren? Would they be able to grasp the deeper meaning to these stories? Are they ready to let go of the man or woman up on the pedestal? It might be wise to choose your audience first. If the story is for your eyes only or if it meant for your adult family members, then write as you will. Tell all – with one caveat. Be kind in your words. Don’t blame others, no matter what. Tell your truth as you know it but understand that there are other perspectives out there. Each has its own truth. Do not tell someone else’s story.

Here’s an example. One class member divorced her husband and wrote two pages criticizing him. He came across as narrow minded, bigoted, and mean spirited. Unfortunately, her words made the reader feel uncomfortable. No one could be that bad. Was she perhaps inadvertently writing something of herself into this diatribe? In telling his story, she was putting herself into it as well, and making both look like caricatures. Wisely, she discarded this life story theme, choosing to give it time and new perspective.

When writing about the tough stuff in life, we need to remember two important points. Readers will only find value in your story if it involves a search for answers and healing. It must include a journey towards redemption, understanding, and perhaps, forgiveness. If your victimhood plays out through the narrative without resolution, there can be little to learn from your experience. Second, the tough things in life often make the best stories.

Perhaps the best advice to consider while writing about the hard things in life is the Alexandre Dumas quote: “The merit of all things lies in their difficulty.” Find this in your stories. It can be your road to redemption.

Richard Campbell

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