I have this incredible friend. Her name is Jennifer Pastiloff. She is one of the most profound, honest, funny, loving people I know. But she’s kind of a mess, and I don’t think she would mind me saying that. She’s that honest.
The thing is that she’s no more a mess than any of us are. She has struggles. People hurt her feelings. She gets sick and needs money and sometimes gets really angry at mean people. She is, in short, an amazing person just like we all are.
But here’s what takes her awesomeness to the next level – she doesn’t hide the mess that is her life. Not on social media. Not in her yoga workshops. Not in her upcoming book.* She is just honest, real, all the time.
Now, that doesn’t mean she pours her whole life out all the time. It just means she’s wise enough to know that people appreciate hearing about the hard things as well as the beautiful things, that being vulnerable about her struggles makes her accessible, makes it easier for people to love her. She awes me almost every day with her strength in her vulnerability.
I think we could all learn a lot from Jen, both as people but also as writers. Because here’s the thing – Jen’s beautiful self has garnered her a following that is devoted, fierce, and all about supporting her. Her yoga workshops sell-out almost every single time, no matter where they are in the world. She has 90,000 fans on her Facebook page. And when she put a call out for the launch team for her forthcoming book, almost 500 of us jumped on board immediately, and people like Pink! and Mayim Bialik are giving her book these AMAZING endorsements.
But she doesn’t do tons of ads. She isn’t paying a publicity team for her book tour. She doesn’t post lots of events or sign-ups or calls for people to come to her workshops. She is, quite simply, just her kind, honest, supportive self. (Check out her launch team – you’ll see what I mean.)
A Writer’s Opportunity Is Vulnerability
We’ve all read them, right? The memoirs, the stories of people’s lives, where all the pain wraps up in a tidy package of insight and sunshine. Or where the language is too polished, too careful and, thus, obscures the real searching, the real pain, the real, hard sorrow of life on earth. And if you are like me, these tidy, polished stories fall flat, they feel shallow, like I’m being asked to believe I’m taking an ocean swim when really I’m just standing in a mud puddle.
I see this surface-tending often in first memoirs, and I have great compassion for the writers. Sometimes, just telling the story is hard enough; to go deep, that feels impossible. But in my job as an editor, I have to tell them to go deep, to probe those wounds, to seek out the places they hold responsibility for their pain and own it but also to not shy away from the pain other people have caused them. If they can’t do that – if they won’t sometimes – then it is always better not to tell the story, at least for now.
The richness of writing – the thing that grips us in a book, that lets us see ourselves in its pages – is not always a similarity of experience. No, we connect to powerful stories because they are honest and vulnerable and not really tidied up. Life is not tidy. Grief and trauma and heartache and beauty – they are not easy. They are ragged and breath-stealing and so, so, so hard to encompass with words. No wonder most of us write some really shallow stuff sometimes.
But the stuff that grips our hearts, the stuff that makes us cry when we read our own words (something the wise Gayle Brandeis once told me meant I’d hit truth), the stuff that we find risky and vulnerable and a little dangerous to write – that’s the rich stuff. That’s the stuff readers will breathe in like fresh air. We need that kind of writing because so much of our world is about polish and presentation and not that much about truth.
How Do We Go Deep?
I’m not going to pretend this is easy, and I’m certainly not going to suggest that we are all ready to tell our hardest stories. There are still parts of my life I can’t yet put words to, things I can’t yet trust to the world because the pain is still too fierce, too raw for me. We have to tell what we’re ready to tell only when we’re ready.
But when we’re ready, here are a few things we can try to get past the surface, to dig beyond the way we’ve told the story a thousand times to friends or in our own heads, to push past the part of ourselves that says first we must guard.
- Follow the senses. For those of us who are sighted, our tendency is to describe visually first, and that’s fine, but for people vision, the visual is the easiest and often the laziest route. So we need to further – remember the scents on that particular street, think about what her hands felt like on our backs when we were sick, describe what the music from that corner bar sounded like at 2am.
- Describe one moment as richly and completely as possible. Using all five senses, capture every aspect that you can of a particular moment. Look at it from every angle, even underneath. Step into another character’s perspective. Then, see what other memories or moments come to mind. Going deep in one spot can open up the rest of the story to that kind of depth.
- Capture our story first before we research, ask other people’s stories, or try to fill in the gaps. Go deep and quiet first. Don’t taint your memory or idea with other people’s tellings until you’ve got down all you can about your own.
- Watch your own emotions and let them play out. If something makes you cry, sit with that – what’s bringing the tears? If you feel anger, at what or whom? What does that anger look like? Where does it launch from your body? Explore. Witness yourself. Use what you feel. There’s beauty there, too.
- Don’t be afraid of what people think. You don’t have to share anything you write until you’re ready. Don’t let what people might say keep you on the surface. Any story worth telling is worth telling deep. Always.
So what stories do you want to tell? What do you need to do to show their ragged, beautiful edges? What might you need to let stay rough so that your gorgeous, heart-honest mess can shine through?
*Jennifer Pastiloff’s memoir On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard comes out on June 4, 2019. You can pre-order it wherever books are sold.