Monday Musings: You Own What Happened To You

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by Kathleen Valentine

Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We *told* you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.” ― Anne Lamott

betrayPeople have told me that they wish they could write about things that have happened to them but, if they did, they’d cause a lot of trouble for people in their lives. I tell them, “If people don’t want you writing about them, they should have been nicer.” It’s true. One of the things that distinguishes every person from the next is their own history, their own experiences. If you are a writer, you have to own that.

This is not to say that you have to write a blistering tell-all that will alienate people from your life. You are not required to write a memoir. Fiction that is informed by our own experiences is sometimes the most powerful fiction anyone will read. Plus, the advantage of writing fiction is that you can adjust circumstances to be broader and more inclusive—not limited to your own biography. Fiction tells the truth, unencumbered by the facts—I say this over and over and believe it deeply.

When I wrote my novella, The Monday Night Needlework & Murder Guild, I knew I was going to tell a story of betrayal. As the story developed, I realized that I was not just writing from my own experience but from the experiences of friends, too. Every woman who has made the mistake of trusting the wrong man can relate to the women in this story. As the first few characters are taken advantage of, I found myself writing with a fair degree of anger and, though the dialogue is often witty and the characters generally likeable, I was a little shocked by my own intensity of emotion. But when I came to the part in the story that grew out of my own experience, I was shaking as I wrote. It was so ingrained in me that “nice people just don’t talk about these things” that I was fairly waiting for the sky to open and lightning to strike.

My friend Rachel Thompson, author of Broken Pieces, writes bravely about her abuse and has made it a priority to encourage other women. She conducts Twitter chats and posts frequently to Facebook about the necessity of writing the hard stuff, telling the truth, putting it out there. Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The whole world would split open.”

And this is not limited to women. I speak of women’s truth because I’m a woman and I relate to it but men need to speak their truths, too. Men and women deal with emotions differently when it comes to talking about abuse, betrayal, pain, loss, but underneath it all there are similar fears. What if someone gets mad at me for telling the truth? What if people think I am unlady-like, unmanly? What if someone decides to sue me? As Annie LaMott said in the quote above, “we’ll deal with that later.”

One of the things I think we all need to consider is how we can speak and write truly without demonizing others. I remember how my mother used to get angry about something she read in the news or someone told her and say, “Men are disgusting.” One time I said to her, “That’s a strong statement from someone who raised three of them.” She wasn’t prepare for that.

So, yes, speak your truth, say what you have to say. The world will not end. But keep the focus where it belongs—on the pain, the betrayal, the crime. People will read what you write, they will hear what you are saying, and they will use your truth to face their own demons. The world needs our truth in order to heal and make things better.

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2 thoughts on “Monday Musings: You Own What Happened To You”
  1. Very thoughtful, Kathleen. Writing about difficult and personal topics requires courage. Telling the truth may have consequences, but so does hiding it. It’s up to each of us, in our writing, to decide how much to tell and how to tell it. Thank you for giving me something to ponder on a rainy Monday.

  2. It’s true, this kind of writing can be the most powerful stories, but it is also often the most difficult to read, and to write.

    Thanks for these encouraging words.

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