April 2018

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Keeping Confidences

When I was undergoing radiation for my second brain tumor a few years ago, I lost a lot of my hair, and I was impressed by how much colder I was without all of my hair. (I didn't have to do chemo, which is when people lose all of their hair, so I still had some, but the swath in radiation's path across the back of my head was destroyed.)

I talked with a friend, a man who had been balding for some time, and told him that I now sympathized with how cold he must be. We talked and laughed about it a bit, and then he said, "Don't write about this in your blog."

I did write about being cold, but I kept my friend's confidence: I wrote my story but not his. That's always my goal in this blog, to write my own story and to respect the stories of others as their stories (and not mine) to tell. 

I took a writing class from a memoirist who disagreed with this approach. If I understood her correctly, she said that memoirists have to be willing to tell everything, and that the story must come before any consideration of others' feelings. I've read enough memoirs about enough misery to believe that other writers must think that, too. 

Some of them, like Cheryl Strayed's Wild, are excellent, but I find myself wondering what her children think when they read her story. After all, I feel that my parents have been honest with me about their lives, but I feel that there are details that I don't need to know. With other memoirs, I sometimes wonder how the people featured in the memoir feel about being there for all to see. 

For me, the story doesn't come before relationships; for me, relationships come before storytelling. Besides, I can tell my truth without telling every detail of my life, and certainly without exposing others' lives. This is much like one of the precepts of being a lesbian--you can out yourself but you should not out someone else--so I've had some practice. 

The hard thing is that my story is so often interwoven with others' stories that sometimes it's hard for me to separate my story from others', but I think I'm learning. When I'm unsure of how to unwind the stories, I can leave that part of my story untold. It will emerge elsewhere. 

This philosophy of attending to our own lives rather than trying to write others' lives is at the core of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Al-Anon (for friends and family of alcoholics). I have attended meetings of both and regularly (well, for three weeks now) attend an Al-Anon group. There I hear amazing stories of struggle and of survival and healing, but those aren't my stories to share.

I can share with you a tidbit from today's speaker meeting, a meeting where someone shares an extended version of their own story: "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment." That aphorism applies broadly, it seems to me: perhaps universally. 

At the heart of both programs are twelve principles, twelve traditions, and twelve steps. An unspoken foundation is, it seems to me, that we heal in telling our stories and in hearing others' stories.

This belief in the healing power of stories is the basis of the book I'm currently working on: Sharing Our Stories of Life-Changing Health Conditions. For the book, I'm interviewing people with life-changing health conditions and those in our lives. 

Some people ask me how I find people to interview. It's easy. People everywhere indicate that they've had a serious health condition, and I often tell them about the project and ask if they'd like to be involved. Mostly, people say yes and mostly they follow through. Quite a few have commented on how important telling and hearing stories has been for them, and they commit themselves to telling their whole truth. The experience of listening to their words and their spirits and giving shape to their stories is a powerful kind of witnessing for me. 

Thus far, I've completed 37 interviews, and each one leaves me breathless. Really. As Ann and I were coming home from this morning's meeting, she said, "I'll bet everyone has an amazing story to tell from our lives if we'll only just listen."

Yes. I think she's right. And what a gift is to listen. 

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