what we need to stop doing to our stories

I was in conversation with one of my students yesterday when a realisation struck me.

I had just proposed that the two of us write down the things that we said to ourselves when we sat down to write, the negative thoughts that made us doubt our voices, those stanzas we say to ourselves when we have finished a work and are looking at it.

I said to my student: let me go ahead and read my list first, then you read yours.

As I read out my list, I could see my student smiling and nodding her head along. It turns out that our lists mirrored each other.

Our conversation then turned to the experience of not fitting in and how we sometimes feel compelled to adjust ourselves so we don’t stick out or are not too different. I found myself talking about how I’ve had to perform painful surgery on pieces I’ve written in order to make those pieces fit into the idea of what story should look like.

It was quite a stimulating conversation and I think it’s conversations like these that bring us to the point where we are no longer student and teacher or student and coach, but we are fellow writers and creative comrades standing on the same ground.

Anyway, one of the pieces I’ve been hesitant to send anywhere is a piece that I’ve considered tearing apart and ruthlessly dissecting so it will fit as a story except I somehow couldn’t bring myself to do that. It felt too painful. So, after sending it out once, I shelved it. In the back of my mind, I had this idea that maybe I would include it in a collection someday.

Then, yesterday’s conversation with my student happened and I realised why I was reluctant to tear this piece apart. I realised that it was because that was exactly what the piece was all about. It was about the pain of having to commit a sort of plastic surgery in order for it to be seen as beautiful.

My student and I came to this conclusion, that while we may have our ideas of how stories should work, it’s important to listen first and to understand where the artist or writer is coming from. What’s your vision for your work? Are you asking me to read because you want to change something? Is there something in this piece you’re not satisfied with? Or are you asking me to read because you’re uncertain and need to hear that your vision is beautiful and you need to trust your voice more?

These are questions that I’ve asked of my students. Listening to them express what they want to say and how they struggle to say it has often been more than enough to make them realise that they can actually do this. They can write what they want to say. Sometimes, all they need is someone who will listen.

At the close of our meeting, I asked my student to join me in adding a line to the list of negative things we say to ourselves. Together we wrote: Even so, still I will write.

Trust your voice. Keep writing.