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.