Dare you admit you’ve got a story to tell? Might that even be possible? And if you do, couldn’t you just tell it later? Or let someone else do it at your funeral?
In case you’re at all unsure that you need to get your story out into the world, I’ve created a diagnostic tool for you. If it turns out you’ve got a story that needs telling post-haste, never fear, this is a treatable condition. And I’ll get to that.
For now, all you have to do is keep track of how many of the following signs describe you. So here goes. I give you Ten Ginormous Signs It’s Time to Tell Your Story:
1) Meaningless chatter drives you up walls, into corners, and under carpets. Smalltalk makes you want to vomit or throw things. You’re impatient with mindless conversation about celebrities’ babies’ hairdos and what’s on sale in aisle seven next to those disposable wipes. Quick fixes, small minds, and small potatoes just don’t satisfy. Disposable doesn’t make sense to you anymore. You want something solid, true, and real. Something that lasts.
2) The almost uncontrollable urge to shout “inappropriate” things exactly when you “shouldn’t.” Your rebellious spirit makes you want to yell in church. You’re the only one laughing in a full movie theater. You’re wondering why everyone sits there, silent, when something needs to be said.
3) You’re snatching corners of envelopes, the end of your grocery list, the center of your palm, just to get the words out of your head. You stapled together a stack of stained cocktail napkins for an emergency makeshift journal.
4) You can’t just suck it up and be a “good listener”—the kind who’s on the receiving end of tedious monologues from family or friends or lovers—anymore.
5) Although you did for many years, you’re not waiting to be asked what you think or how you feel. It just tumbles out. You’re realizing you’re not a rookie when it comes to knowing who you are or how to speak what’s true.
6) Your body’s talking. You’ve got a sore throat or a stiff neck or an upset stomach. You struggle to bounce back, or front. You only want clear liquids. You land on your couch for a week, unable to do anything but be with yourself and remember what’s most important. Your body forces you to be discerning, introspective. While on the couch, you can’t stop weeping when you watch Happy Feet. In between sobs, you whisper to yourself, “I am that penguin.
7) You get jealous when you read other stories that sing. You’ve stopped celebrating other writer’s victories. Instead, you feel like you’re always going to weddings and never getting married, like you want to dump cranberry juice on the bride’s dress instead of throwing rose petals.
8) Life’s making way for your story even if you aren’t. That party gets cancelled and you’re handed the two free hours you’ve been saying you don’t have to write. Without planning it, everyone you know gets you a journal for your birthday. That writing class you’ve been wanting to take finally falls on the exact days and times you’re free. To make matters more obvious, reminders of your story keep showing up: in conversations, the billboard you notice, cult pamphlets in your screen door, the same quote three different friends have posted on your Facebook wall. Also, see #6.
9) You can’t stop baking, making, painting, and no matter how many pound cakes you produce or rooms of your house you coat in robin’s egg blue, you’re still not satisfied.
10) You’re terrified. That your life is meaningless. That you have nothing of value to say or contribute. That the story you long to tell, even though you can feel its power vibrating down through the stardust of your bones, just won’t matter to anyone else. That no one will listen.
So how did you do? If you answered yes to 2 or less, you might just need a bubble bath, a bar of dark chocolate, and an internet fast day to reset.
But if you answered yes to 3 or more, especially #10, here’s the news you know already: It’s time to tell your story. And like I said, this is a highly treatable condition. One you’re actually lucky to have. One you’ve probably always wanted, whether you’ve admitted that out loud or not. One that catapults you to an exhilarating path of self-expression.
I mention #10 in particular because when it comes to fear, we have a tendency to shrink in response to it, rather than to see it heralding a time that calls for bravery. Or at least I do. I still regret the time I cowered at violence on the bus and didn’t speak up to shift a situation involving a mentally ill woman. And I still rejoice over the moment I stood up to a man harassing my friends and me and told him in no uncertain terms to move along (and he did).
I do know this: the times we’re most afraid of speaking up are the times when the world most needs our voices, when we have the greatest opportunity to use our words with power and passion. This is as important in the written word as it is in the spoken.
For starters, here are some ways to cool the fever, feed the need, and still your beating heart to a saner pace:
- Be open to what form your story takes and where it goes. Don’t be so concerned about forcing it onto one path. That would be like enrolling your newborn in medical school because you really want a doctor in the family. Give it some time to play and learn to walk and talk, so it can tell you what it wants to be and where it wants to go. Savor these early story days—they grow up so fast!
- Start writing, right now. Make telling your story a priority. Put it on your calendar, and give it the same importance as other dates or commitments you’d never miss. When it’s really time to tell your story, it’s not a self- indulgent act. It’s one of the most healthy things you can do for yourself, not to mention everyone around you. As Marianne Williamson writes, “Your playing small does not serve the world.”
- Get some help. If you’re like me, you’ve got an overflowing garden of ideas that can quickly turn into a tangled mess. When we create, we’re so close to our own stories that it’s hard to see the big picture—what to trim or what to fertilize. I need someone to weed and prune, someone to make a path and put in a bench so others can sit down and enjoy.
That kind of feedback is what led to me turning what I thought was a finished short story collection into a young adult novel. On my own, I would have held tight to my initial structural vision, not to mention the idea that I was done; to see what else was possible, what gems I might be missing, I needed another set of trained eyes. Getting one is what got me published. Find yourself a trusted writing partner or seasoned reader, a developmental editor, or a writing coach.
If you’re interested in the latter two options and ready to have someone help you to get that brilliant story of yours on the page, I’d love to hear from you.
In the meantime, may the force and the Schwartz and any appropriate combination thereof, be with you.
You and your story matter. Tell it.