What's My Story Really About Anyway?

My essay “The Subaru Should Have Been a Sign,” went viral on today.com.

I still can’t freaking believe it.

In case you haven’t read it yet, click on this link.

Barb from Subaru Customer Service reached out to say that her colleagues were in awe of the piece. “It really resonated with us,” Barb said. “Everybody at some point needs to take a big leap and follow their heart.”

My heart took a little leap at that moment, and I may have even gotten a bit choked up. Because isn’t that what we all want as writers? To know that our writing connected with a reader. That we touched someone’s heart. That they felt seen or known or less alone.

And the interesting thing for me—so far—has been that I’ve heard from at least as many straight readers as I have from readers in the queer community.

Because my piece wasn’t about being gay or coming to terms with my sexuality later in life. That was the “situation” or the context of the essay, but that wasn’t what the essay was really ABOUT.

That wasn’t the real story.

One of the books I recommend to my memoir coaching clients is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. On page 13 Gornick writes: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

The task of the personal narrative writer, whether they are writing a full-length memoir like my soon-to-be published (fingers crossed!) Graveyard of Safe Choices, or an essay like  “The Subaru Should Have Been a Sign,” is to determine what exactly is this piece ABOUT. What is the real story here? The thing that the writer has come to the page to say.

Let me tell you, that’s not always easy to determine.

What's the deeper story here? This is one of the first questions I help writers answer when we work through my Build Your Book package.

What's your point? How are the various threads in your life connected?

Because a book that just describes a bunch of stuff that happened to you isn't a book many people will want to read, besides your family and besties, of course.

“I loved how you connected the Slinky story with the Subaru story,” a number of clients said to me after they read my today.com essay.

[If you haven’t read the essay yet, read it now … the rest of this blog post won’t make much sense if you don’t!]

I chuckled when they said that because when I began writing the essay, I had NO idea how the two stories were connected or even what the essay was about.

I started with the Slinky story, a scene I dearly loved that I had reluctantly cut out of my memoir manuscript. I had to "kill my darling” because I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT IT WAS ABOUT!

Somehow I sensed that my recent adventures with scraping up my Subaru and my need to avert my eyes every time I approached my car were connected, but I didn’t know how.

I had the situation: the beat-up Subaru and the tangled Slinky—and now I had to find the story.

So I tried on some different ideas. 

And what I finally realized was that I GET TO DECIDE WHAT THESE SCENES ARE ABOUT. I GET TO DECIDE HOW THEY ARE CONNECTED.

I GET TO BE THE AUTHOR OF MY OWN STORY!

Ironically, that was the point of the story. That was what the essay turned out to be about!

But what I didn't do—and frankly was TEMPTED to do at first—was punt on making the connections myself. Throw a few vignettes together and hope SOMEONE else would do the hard work of making meaning out of them. 

While readers may make their own connections from a piece, the writer can’t abandon the task.

The writer has to wrestle with the words on the page and make meaning out of them. 

For me, this is one of the great joys of being a writer. Yes, I want to share my story and hopefully impact others with it. But I also want to try and understand my own damn life!

Why I did the things I did. Why and how the past informs and shapes my present. What the hell was—is—my life all about?

Therapy can help answer some of these questions.

AND writing can help too.

Writing my story—the bigger story I share in my memoir Graveyard of Safe Choices—literally changed my life.

To find out how, stay tuned! I’ll be sharing publication news as soon as I have it.

In the meantime, I’d love to challenge you to put your butt in the chair and do the hard work of making meaning out of your life.

Please let me know how I can support you.

P.S. I did not become the new face of Subaru, but Barb did offer me a generous voucher for service at a Subaru dealership. Let's see if that will take care of some of the scrapes and dents!

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