I was talking on the phone with a dear friend last night, and she was sharing how she really wanted to write down her family’s stories, the ones that had been told orally for generations, but may be lost soon if someone didn’t write them down. But the catch was, she didn’t consider herself a good writer. “Bologna!” I said. The sooner we let go of our own limiting self-definitions, the better. If there’s one thing I learned from NaNoWriMo last month, it was that writing is an art form, and the only way any of us get better, or “good” at it, is by practicing. Hours and hours of practice. If that doesn’t sound like a day in the park to you, you’re not alone. But wait…in the midst of all that agony, there is a reward for telling your story. You know, the one deep inside that is begging to be released from its chains…there are lots of rewards actually, for all of your long hours and hard work.
In Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, she has a chapter towards the end called “Giving”. In it, she talks about one of the central reasons we all write (or want to write): to give. She writes, “There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.” More than anything else, writing has taught me how to give, both to myself and others. We each have such unique stories to tell, whether from our own lives, from our ancestors lives or from the lives of zany characters who seem so real in our own heads. Get them down on the page. I promise you they will do so much more for you, and perhaps for other people you care deeply about too, when they are written down, pulled out of the crazy mess that is your brain.
In writing small bits of memoir, short stories, my first novel and this blog, I have discovered dozens of benefits for myself and others. Here are just a few you may want to remind yourself of when the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard feels like it is sucking your will to live.
- Writing is a form of therapy (and a heck of a lot cheaper than a therapist). It releases the demons, lets them out to play and work out their issues, and then eventually dissolve into the nothingness they really are. If you have a troubled past (or simply had a troubling day yesterday), I guarantee writing about it will bring you a sense of peace and hopefully help you sleep a little better.
- Telling your story often brings you back to your childhood. This alone (in my opinion) is worth all the time, anguish and battles you have with your inner critics as you write. To reflect on and relive your childhood through new eyes produces a joy unlike any other. It can be painful if the incidents you are writing about brought you pain, but in the end, your inner children will thank you for giving them attention (a.k.a. love).
- Writing down family stories, especially ones that have only been told orally, creates a record that can be passed down to your grandchildren and their grandchildren. If it is never written down, chances are good it will get lost along the way (unless your family has an amazingly accurate tradition of storytelling at every family event and impeccable memories). By writing it down, you cherish your family’s history by giving it worth and value to others in your family.
- Giving the gift of your writing, whether it be memoir, fiction or non-fiction, is a homemade gift unlike any other. Need to save money this holiday season? Consider writing a poem, a short story or a tidbit of memoir that would touch someone in a way a new sweater or tool set simply can’t. The benefits are two-fold: you get practice at writing and telling your story, and your loved one gets a gift they will cherish for a lifetime.
- Even writing your fiction story has undeniable creative benefits, whether it’s your life fictionalized the way you wish it was or had been, or a work of fiction or fantasy inside of you that has been waiting patiently to be expressed. Just the act of beginning to write it down will help you think more clearly, see things you hadn’t noticed before and be more true to your core self.
Each of these benefits has exponential rewards in and of itself that simply cannot be measured. And the beautiful thing (and perhaps what makes it so hard) is that it is entirely up to you to tell your story. No one else can tell it like you can. No one else can give the gift of your words exactly the way you can. And whether or not you actually share your story with others is also up to you. God knows there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of individuals out there who have written their stories and chosen to keep them to themselves for whatever reason, to stuff them in a box in storage or in the back of their closet or in a long lost computer file somewhere. But the great thing is that whether shared or not, nothing can take away the benefits you gain when you write your story. Nothing can diminish the infinitely “cosmic importance” of giving the gift of your writing, first to yourself, and then if you’re brave enough, to the ones you love the most.