About a year ago I sat in soft, faux-leather “visitors” chair watching Josh receive another round of chemo. He didn’t look comfortable. One arm, attached to a drip, pointed up at 45 degrees outside of the covers. A hot water bottle balanced precariously on top.
“You should thank me. Now you have something to write about,” he said from behind closed lids. He was right. My heart broke. Again.
Any writer will tell you that a story isn’t a story without a disaster. The disaster can be mammoth (think super hero stories) or tiny (think domestic dramas) but our heroes must always overcome adversity to grow to be a better person.
I’m just putting the finishing touches on a memoir and my biggest learning during writing was that I had to expand and contract timelines and delete vast chunks of my life. Why? Because for big chunks of my life everything was “fine”. And “fine” isn’t a story.
But you know that’s a literary device, right? IT’S NOT REAL LIFE.
My FB feed is choked with these kind of quotes at the moment:
“I’ve never met a strong person with an easy past”
We seem to live in a time when these messages are ubiquitous. Our shelves are bursting with “I am a victim off…” stories. These stories are important. They let the author tell their own story and they let us, vicariously, live it too. We seem, though, to have blurred the lines between what is entertaining/educationaland what is instruction.
Hearing other people’s stories can be titillating, educational, heart wrenching. It isn’t, should never be, an instruction to seek out disaster for ourselves.
A happy life isa worthy life and you don’t need to have undergone great hardship to be interesting.
The last 18 months has been the hardest of my life and this is what I can offer you:
I am no stronger than I was before. I am battered and bruised and much more vulnerable than I’ve ever been. I imagine myself as one of those 1980’s Mazda 232’s…the ones that had engines that kept running even when the foot well had rusted out?
I will concede that facing my biggest fear has given me some perspective (because a tight deadline, isn’ta disaster, after-all) and some confidence in knowing that I was alwaysstrong.
I am not a more inspirational person. I am currently in the middle of a big blood drive and the reason I’m doing it? To cheer myself up.I’ve read enough studies to know that acts of service make us feel better and I’m in desperate need of feeling better. I am no more worthy than I ever was.
I haven’t grown emotionally.Pain is not necessary to become a “whole person”. The myth (the sin?) that we writers, self-helpers and creatives have created is that suffering equates to personal growth. It doesn’t. It’s possibleto “grow” from painful experiences but it isn’t a pre-requisite. It’s also possible (and I’d even say preferable) to grow from positive experiences.
Let’s say I “grew” from this experience – well whoop-de-fucking-doo. I’d give pretty much anything to forgo the growth and have my healthy, happy child back.
Facing hardship hasn’t made me more interesting.I’m still pretty much the same boring introvert I always was. I have the same annoying sense of humour that entertains and offends people in equal measure. I write more because I’ve swapped writing for talking. It allows me to be choked up and tearful with less immediate embarrassment.
By all means read sad memoirs (I hope one day you’ll read mine*). Go on silent retreats, walk the Camino, sign up for self-development journeys. Do them all, but do it because they interest you, are meaningful to you and give you a sense of pleasure. Please don’t do it to become more worthy or virtuous. Don’t do it because you think dredging up every painful experience will make you deeper or more interesting. Don’t do it because you think it might prepare you for imagined challenges in the future. It won’t. Nothing could.
P.S. The memoir I’m currently finishing isn’t a sad memoir, in fact I’m hoping you’ll find it funny.