I took my first writing class the other day. The subject of this class was memoir writing. I glanced around the room and saw a remarkable mix of women and men there with me. Many of us had clearly weathered the storms of time and had, no doubt, gathered an abundance of life stories just waiting to find expression.
I am guessing that each person’s motives for taking this class were entirely different. One student might be hoping to write their autobiography as a final gift to loved ones. Another might want to share an epiphany, or something learned through struggle. Others may wish to document a place and time in a way no one else has. Our reasons for being there were not important. What matters is that we wanted to tell our stories at all.
Our teacher for the day was writer Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. She focused this class on the teachings of writer, Lewis Hyde, because Elizabeth believes his book, “The Gift”, is deeply meaningful and holds a critical message for practicing writers. Hyde’s book makes that case that writing is a gift that must be sent into the world so that it keeps on giving. Writing is not, he said, a simple transaction in which a story is written, and then simply given or sold to another. No, writing is a gift which must keep moving. A gift of story is consumed when it moves from one person to another, with the giver expecting nothing in return. “Passing the gift along to someone else is the act of gratitude that finishes the labor”, he argued.
As we did our writing exercises that day and practiced this act of gift giving, I was struck by the comment of a classmate who stated the obvious, “We all want affirmation that we have been heard in our community.” I took his term, “community” to be any collection of people, large or small with whom one lives and depends upon for well-being and safety.
His statement was important in its simplicity. We all need the public spaces and opportunities to tell our stories without the harsh judgment that seems to have seeped into every crack and crevice of our society today. The need to be heard and acknowledged exists across all of humanity, however, is often not practiced in our civic or private institutions, families, or even our congregations. Creativity, distress, joy, frustration and ‘thinking outside the box’ are often stifled or not tolerated, keeping us small and our communities one-dimensional.
The writer May Sarton wrote,
“There is only one real deprivation, I decided this morning, and that is not to be able to give one’s gift to those one loves most…. The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.”
This quote made me think about the state of community life. Too often, we have no stage or safe space to fundamentally agree or disagree with our neighbors, to gift our stories to others, or to receive these gifts from them. As a result, stories get backed up and fester inside of us. Feelings of resentment and fear begin to take the place of empathy and understanding, poisoning us from the inside. One wonders if we could begin to heal our political divide by simply telling our stories.
Why Stories Matters
During class that day, our teacher asked us to reflect on why it is important to write, to gift our stories to others. Here is a list of what my fellow writers came up with:
- Ability to relive our experiences
- Honoring experiences we have had
- Honoring others
- It opens our hearts
- It releases things heretofore unexpressed
- Gives us perspective on our lives
- Conjures up images we thought we had forgotten
- Helps us to get out of our head
- Helps us to go into our head
- Affirms our capacity to share and give
These ideas are profound and are important values about storytelling probably shared by most of our human family. In keeping with Hyde’s idea of passing on our stories in a perpetual way, I am passing this story on to you, so you may share it with others. Hyde writes, “To bestow one of our creations is the surest way to invoke the next. Bestowal creates that empty place into which new energy may flow.”
Go forth. Take a risk. If you can, help to create a safe place. Tell your own stories so others will feel safe telling theirs. Keep the gift in motion, knowing that you have started a ripple that begins with you and continues to give in perpetuity.