The most important story you’ll ever tell

 The most important story you’ll ever tell isn’t the one you commit to a page. It’s the one you tell yourself about your life.

The other day, I was listening to a colleague tell me about the lack of support she was getting from her family as she pursued a freelance career. This is a common complaint, one I hear all the time. It’s certainly something I experienced myself. As the writer kept talking, I kept thinking of the power of the story she was telling herself: that everyone expected her to fail, and that she was crazy, and she should get a job. She spent all her energy constantly battling this storyline where everything was stacked against her.

Being a freelancer is hard, but the battles should be about finding new clients, finding your voice, finding your way, not trying to convince your family that you’re not nuts. If your story is that you’re a victim, even if you are, then you won’t ever have the energy to do the work that needs to be done.

Many years ago, when Jess was very small, and I was newly divorced, I told myself a powerful story: about a spunky single mom of a disabled daughter who succeeded in a highly implausible career through sheer, unrelenting persistence, too single-minded to ever give up. I told the story to myself over and over, until it was true.

Every time I wanted to blame my ex-husband for being imperfect, and the cause of all my troubles, I did not argue his virtues or name my contributions to our failures. I just told myself the story again: spunky single mom triumphs over challenges.

Every rejection letter, every night in a hospital room, everyone who ever left me: spunky single mom triumphs over challenges.

“I’m going to write a story about this someday,” I whispered to myself. But I was already writing the story, every day.

The greater the challenges, the better the story, I always figure. Who cares about how the doting parents of a beautiful woman of great wealth and privilege bought her the darling boutique she enjoys running with the help of her myriad well-paid assistants, and how she snagged a wealthy and charming prince and lived happily ever after?

Some people want to live that life, and hey, who am I to tell them it’s a boring story with no guts and no grit in it? My objection to living that life isn’t that it would be dull. My objection is that, frankly, no one wants to hear a story about a beautiful privileged woman who lived happily ever after. Least of all me. I want a story with a little more grime in it. I want the real stuff, the good stuff: that hard work and sacrifice mean something, and that love conquers all.

The story sometimes gets knocked askew, like that time I was an idiot and trusted people I should have known better than to trust, and ended up being thisclose to homelessness, and though I would have preferred not to go through it, in the end, it makes a good reversal in the story.

“And just when she thought she would succeed, and live happily ever after, disaster ensued! And for five years she lived on beans and rice and slept on the floor because she couldn’t afford a mattress.”

But she triumphed in the end.

If you tell the story right, she always does.

A few of my favorite things

LESSONS IN MAGIC
A CERTAIN KIND OF MAGIC
THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN
DOJO WISDOM FOR WRITERS

12 Comments

  1. Jennifer, I needed to read this today! Great advice, hugely appreciate it (as always!).

  2. Wow. This is hitting me at just the right time.

  3. Jennifer, I love the new look of the blog! And your message as well. It reminded me of the story I told myself as a bullied sixth-grader: "You will end up better than all of these people." It helped me get through many rough days, and I told it to myself until it indeed came true. Thanks for a pick-me-up.

  4. Oh yea. Well said! Here's my story (with a bit of borrowing from you): Gleefully stubborn woman enters a highly implausible career 10 seconds before the economy tanks, but succeeds through talent, grit, gumption, faith, friendship and unrelenting persistence. Grrrrrrrr. I feel my power growing already!

  5. Love this. Yes. Yes. Living is a triumph and you can always experience a happy ending. Thanks for reminding me and love the new blog design.

  6. This is a potent piece, Jennifer.
    'I did not argue his virtues or name my contributions to our failures.' You nailed something else on the head with that phrase.
    Enjoyed this? Not really the right expression. But it made me think. Thank you.

  7. "Being a freelancer is hard, but the battles should be about finding new clients, finding your voice, finding your way, not trying to convince your family that you’re not nuts."

    I'm going to tape this to the bulletin board above my computer. I never gave much thought to the story I was telling myself until I read "The Power of Story" by Jim Loehr. Suddenly, everything came into focus.

    We tell ourselves a myriad of stories every day, and I think for writers, the yarns we spin are even more powerful. For me, it took comparing the story I WANT to tell to the elements in my current plot in order to see why there were so many holes and I wasn't getting my happy ending. Of course I wasn't! I had allowed minor characters to become major villains and muffled the authentic voice of my main character. Every novelist knows that if you need your heroine to start out in Alabama and end up in Nashville, you shouldn't send her on a pointless sightseeing trip through Mississippi. And yet, time and time again, that's what I did.

    Now, when life is taking a haywire direction, I write a quick plot treatment. I strip the situation of its emotion and coldly assess where I am and where I should be, eliminating the detours. As for those minor characters, I shove them back where they belong – into the shadows. Maybe they'll rise up and try to derail my heroine, maybe they'll grumble and spawn a few demons to toss in her path, but it's ok now. I'm in control of this story, and I get to choose how it ends.

    Realizing that has made all the difference in the world.

    Thanks for this post. The thought process behind it is slowly changing my life, and I think if people really "got" it, we'd see more people living their dreams instead of sleepwalking through disasters.

  8. Loved this post. Have been telling my own story in my head for a while now and am now telling a fictional version of it on paper. It definitelty helps to keep the spirits up!

  9. Well said!

    From someone intent on going independent with a career change, thank you 🙂

  10. Nice!


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