Anne Lamott rather famously wrote, ““You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Which sounds so good, doesn’t it? So empowering and simple and sure. It implies such clear lines–between your stories and mine, warm writing and cold, good behavior and bad.
Would that this were true.
I recently published a story on this blog about a reunion with an old, cherished friend, T., one I’ve seen only a few times in the past 25 years, in which I shared some of our past behavior. I asked her if she was OK with me publishing it and she said yes, but then her feelings changed.
Her shift puzzled me, and it left me feeling that perhaps our friendship wasn’t what I thought it was, or that I don’t know my friend as well as I think I do.
“Of course you don’t,” my therapist said, when I talked about this with him. “You haven’t really known her for 25 years. Are you the same person you were 25 years ago?”
“No,” I said. “But also yes.” His eyebrows raised. (I suspect my therapist and Anne might get on splendidly.)
“Both,” I said. “Both are true.” (But I wasn’t sure.)
I took the post down–which I had offered to do before T.’s feelings changed (or before she felt able to express them to me, or before she really knew them–whichever is the truth of what happened for her)–but it bothered me some to do so, and the bothering’s been niggling at me.
I’ve been trying to write about it for days bordering on weeks now, and I can’t seem to get it right, to pin down what the story of this story really is, what’s at the root of the bother and niggle.
Somewhere in the midst of wondering and writing and pondering, my blogging friend Kate shared the image at the top of this post. It sent me to the whole of the e.e. cummings poem the words in the photo are from, and in them I found a bit of an answer to at least part of the question:
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
In the “you” of the poem I saw not some other person, some lover, but the girl I was once was. The person I was when T. and I were young is a person I’ve had to work hard to love. I spent years trying to kill her, as if eradication were the only path to redemption. I didn’t understand, then, the truths that the poem reminds me of, now: That anywhere I go, she goes, too, forever. That whatever I have done or will do will always be, in some ways, her doing. That I will always carry her heart within my heart. That if she was not worthy of love then, then I am not, now–because I am still her, and she is me.
Taking the post down felt too much like all the years I buried that girl, too much like there was something shameful in who we were, or, perhaps, that there was something shameful in telling our story.
Not long after I read the poem, my daughter sent me a text: “If you can’t hold love for something and critique it at the same time, you’ll never be able to love anything.” It was about an entirely unrelated matter, but everything is connected, isn’t it? It was another breadcrumb on the trail.
A few days later, another story-teller, Maria Popova, pointed me to another poem, “Love After Love,” by Derek Walcott, whose words revealed more of the story:
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Walcott’s words helped me see that when T. arrived at my door and time telescoped and I felt a rush of familiar intimacy, as if we were still to each other what we’d once been, it was, in some sense, as if I were greeting myself arriving at my own door–that young self, the one I’d spent so many years feeling ashamed of and trying to erase–and I was nothing but elated to see her. As T. and I talked and laughed and reminisced about who we’d been and what we’d done and how those things impacted the lives we’re living today, I felt full of love not only for my friend–who she was then and who she is now–but also for the stranger who was myself. She was just a girl doing the best she could with what she knew. She was not, as I once thought, weak. She and her friend were stronger than we knew, in part because of our love of and for each other, a love that remains intact over the long distance of a life lived mostly apart. A love that was true, as I strived (but so often failed) to be. A love that holds within it the possibility of another blooming, now that we are again, as we once were in adolescence, in the midst of re-imagining and re-creating our lives.
It was all such a gift–the familiarity, the insight, the love, the hope, even–yes–the redemption–all wrapped in the package of an afternoon visit. It was a gift I wanted to share. So I told the story of it.
There is so much I don’t know. Where are the lines between my stories and those of the people I love? Which stories are ours to tell, and which are not? How can I know if I’ve told the story right, if I’ve told it true? I suppose I’ll figure the answers out eventually–or I won’t–but what I do know is this:
I am a writer.
No matter what the events–the facts–of any of my stories are and who they most belong to, what I am telling, always, is my story, and I’m always telling the same one: the story of figuring out how to love myself and all the other flawed humans on this planet (by which I mean, everyone). I do it with the hope that my stories of learning how to love will in some way build the same capacity in whoever reads them–the same way reading other peoples’ stories has built that capacity in me. I do it with faith that this is one of the ways to save the world.
It is my life’s work, loving this way.
I’m sure that sometimes I’ll continue to get it wrong. I am still the girl who is doing the best she can with what she knows. (Isn’t that all any of us are?) No one has silenced me more than me, and I can see now that asking myself not to write has been like asking me not to love, not to be.
And I want to live.
Photo courtesy of Kate.
20 thoughts on “True Story”
First, thank goodness 😅 that I am not completely in the beginning phase of dementia state of mind. I did read that particular post as well as comments. I could completely relate to your story once again; and occasionally think of a few special (to me) childhood friendships that I would enjoy a revisit in our current real time. There are only two childhood friendships that have stood the test of time, almost a century. It could be days, months and even years in between our communications, yet for me, I still feel that core of our intimacy of a partial shared life. People remain in our hearts and souls as long as we desire; although some people we wish we could forget, simply let go the memories.
After reading your post, I wanted to write a meaningful comment but did not have the time.
When I had the time, I went to your blog. The post that I thought I had read wasn’t there! I then I questioned my own sanity. Had I dreamed such a well written and meaningful post by a blogger named Rita? How could I have? I thought now I’m dreaming of blog writings that don’t exist! I must be heading into dementia!
Now, I’m feeling relieved 😌. I’m not going bonkers just yet!!
I am one with the strong belief that our life is “our story that each person owns.” These stories of our lives are ours to tell from our own experience. I also developed late in my life that “my life story as I experienced it, certainly may not be the same experience of the person that I was with in that moment.” That person owns their own story, and thoughts to tell or not to tell their own story of the same event or experience.
My brother is an American Author and current journalist. In my 40’s, I found myself reading a nonfiction novel that I was drawn to by the title, (never looked at the author’s name), purchased it and enjoyed. Three quarters of the way through, I found myself wide eyed. In one portion, this author was writing about my family, and included a conversation that I remembered vividly, even referenced “my sister.” That’s when I turned to read who the author was! It went on to say our mother had proofed prior to publishing and she disagreed with his perspective, yet would not elaborate on her detail recollection. What I read is what I remembered as well.
What I learned is this: We all the the right to speak our own truths with ownership in our own voice. And some truths may be wished to be untold and left in the past.
I struggle with wanting to write my truth of my life as I experienced my own self as there was some much silencing pressure by others involved. To this day, I have yet to have the brave courage to write “my story.” It takes enormous strength. I appreciate and admire that about you within your blog.
Thank you for taking the time to write–I promise this post won’t disappear. 🙂 Your story about your brother’s book is amazing. It makes me think that there is more to your story, that you didn’t realize the book was written by him until you were part way through it. I am wondering, too, about how one sibling in a family becomes a writer but another feels silenced. I hope, if you want to write the truth of your story, that you will feel able to do that. For whatever it’s worth, my therapist has insisted that I do need to write mine. Writing doesn’t have to mean sharing. I’m wondering what it might do for you if you gave yourself permission to keep your story private? I’ve come to realize that sharing is an important part of why I write, but an equally important reason for me is that writing helps me understand and experience my life more fully. It helps me feel and see more deeply. That’s the primary reason, honestly. Wishing you well–
Absolutely, Rita. There is more to “that” story. For now, two words come to surface to answer your first wonderment which is this: Family dynamics. And for your second wonderment, that would be an afiimatve yes; with one word to share as it might be as simple as being able to forget the past if we want to: Forgiveness.
I find I have to ask — are you and T ok after all this? I hope so…
I’m not sure if this relates to T’s concerns about your initial story or not, but this post has reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend this summer. I told her that I had recently told my 12-year-old son that I was HIS VERY AGE when I had first dabbled in smoking. (He was rather shocked, btw.) My friend said, very doubtfully, that she didn’t think either she or her husband would be quite so open with their two boys about all the things they themselves did as tweens/teenagers. This got me thinking about how so many of us try to hide or downplay those things which paint us as less-than ideal humans (which then, IMO, cycles and builds and results in more and more of us wanting to deny, because *who* wants to be first to admit to falling down/falling apart?).
Personally, I have trouble with the Anne Lamott quote. While I do believe that we own our stories, I think that sharing them without thinking of the consequences to others is not necessarily good policy, unless you are completely prepared for the fallout that may ensue. Different people have very different conceptions as to what constitutes privacy, so (if you want to ensure an ongoing relationship with the secondary person in the story) the question is: can the story be told as is, or can the story be told but with efforts to ensure anonymity, or should the story not be told at all?
I do completely agree with you when you speak of the power of stories, that they can help us to figure out how to love, how to accept, how to empathize, how to become fully human with the realization that none of us are perfect and we all struggle. I think the more truth we tell, the more truth we read, the better off humankind will be…
And I have to add, I LOVE the text your daughter sent you — that’s a bit of wisdom that I, at 50, still need to remind myself of.
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I’m with you on having trouble with Lamott’s advice (though I love so much of what she has to say about writing). And to be fair, there is a whole chapter in her book in which she talks about changing details in a story so that you won’t be accused of libel. I think she means “story” in a pretty broad sense, and I’m guessing she would make a distinction between truth and Truth.
In an earlier version of this post, I did dive some into the question of privacy and what is true. I know that facts are events we can verify happened, and story is my interpretation of what they mean. I know I can put my story out there, and others are free to also do the same. But just because an event is a fact, that doesn’t mean it needs to be shared. For me, I think my friend’s request niggled at me because it touched a nerve connected to my own sense of shame about some things that happened in the past. At the same time, I think it’s entirely appropriate and understandable for her to say that she’d prefer I keep some things that we did private. Not out of shame, but because of the reasons we ever want some things to stay private–such as the kind you touch on here. There are still things about my youth I haven’t shared with my children, and I might never.
I believe T. and I are fine. While taking the post down niggled at me–mostly because it raised for me questions about story and perception and friendship and time–it was not hard for me to take it down, and I’m glad I did.
I love you, your writing, and your sometimes painful willingness to engage with this messy, messy world. I feel so lucky that you are also a writer, so we get to read what you share as you wrestle with your life. Keep up the good work! It is so valuable to me and others, in addition to you.
Thank you, Hillary. It’s been hard, this past year, to engage with this messy, messy world. It’s been hard to know where our energies are best spent, hasn’t it? Well, at least it has been for me. I’m still figuring it out. (Clearly.) Glad I have you in the muck of it with me. Love you, too.
I love your writing.
One of the many reasons I stopped writing on my blog a year ago was very similar to this–I found it hard to write about my actual life in a way that didn’t offend people in my life , or give them ammunition to attack me later. (Ask me about the “you need mental help” intervention I sat through after writing about my son’s food allergies.) The struggle to whitewash everything that came out of my mouth just became too much, and I didn’t have enough inoffensive home decor stuff to talk about….so I stopped.
I agree that stories are the essential human experience. They are how we learn. Keep telling your story. It is a good one.
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For whatever it’s worth, I would love to read your stories. Your real ones. You are a writer, too. And you’re funny and smart and living an interesting story. Clearly, I don’t have all the answers. (I probably don’t even have all the questions. Shocker, given how much time I spend lost in the weeds of the ones I have, but true nonetheless.) I do know what you can’t really write if you’re feeling you have to whitewash your story. Your truth. Maybe your time to write isn’t now? I think I wrote a home blog because I needed to write but there was no way I could really write about the bigger story going on in that home we were trying to make. I was too close to it, too much in the middle of it. It was too painful. And too much about people I love and I wanted to keep too much of our story private to be able to really tell it. (This is all still the case.) The point I’m losing is: Just because you can’t tell your stories now, it doesn’t mean that will always be the case. I hope I am around when you finally can.
First, you AND your teenage daughter are too smart for me. WAY too smart.
Some of the words, honestly, I had to re-read to understand because SMART.
So I am sad because I read that post and that you had to take it down makes me a little sad. And mad. Smad. That’s a line from somewhere….Gilmore Girls? which is also too smart for me……
I get that she is in a different place but it was your story as well and it feels a bit like censoring.
I know that she is very lucky to have a friend in you and that, at the end of the day, is my takeaway.
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1. My daughter is way too smart for just about everyone. 🙂 Sometimes I think, where did she come from? And how did I get lucky enough that she came to me?
2. You are plenty smart. Certainly smart enough for me, anyway. (And Gilmore Girls isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. I say that with love because GG is what Grace was actually talking about, when she sent those words to me. See, you’re one of us.)
3. I love your loyalty.
4. Don’t be smad. I mean, you can be. I am not the boss of you. But I’ve realized, re-reading the original post, that I ascribed some things to her that were really just me. They may have been her, too, but I don’t really know that. And no one is forcing me to take the post down. My choice, and I’m sticking to it because it’s what feels right. It’s still a free country. (Mostly. Oh, that’s a topic for a different post, isn’t it?)
5. I am lucky to have a friend in you. <3
I feel a bit obliged to comment since I am the T/Tina in Rita’s article. To begin with, I love and respect Rita and hope that this will prevail throughout our lives. When we reconnected this fall, it was like we had never been apart-sorry to use the cliche-I have never been as good a writer as Rita or her lovely daughter for that matter! Anyway, I appreciated Rita’s original blog and approved of it being posted. After revisiting it, and seeing that some folks had liked the blog including my daughter’s boss, I began to rethink having it out there. Admittedly, I feel somewhat ashamed at my behavior and how it may have influenced Rita, but then when we were discussing the blog, Rita said I was sort of bad ass back then; I kind of liked that label. What made me rethink having this teenage portrait of myself out in cyber land was my career. Like Rita, I’m an educator, a high school teacher who works with “at-risk” high school students, specifically as an academic advocate in the areas of English and history-my major areas. Frankly, I don’t think it would be healthy for my students to read about the other Mrs. Moore, the Tina of my adolescents. I’m probably over reacting, but I was worried enough to ask Rita to take down the blog. I’m a passionate advocate for these students, and I live by these words: ” In every community in this country, there are children with enormous ability who just need a little spark to go on to great things. We have high hopes for all of our children, and we have to make them know that they can have high hopes for themselves.” Whatever you may think about Bill Clinton, his words are spot on in terms of my beliefs and what I attempt to do for kids. To think I might in some manner jeopardize my relationship with these kids by allowing a window into my not so perfect past just wasn’t an option for me. I apologize to Rita for putting her in this position. She was respecting me, and I’m thankful for that. I’m also thankful that Rita didn’t allow me to be too bad ass back then-as we know Rita, you were the level headed one!
You were bad-ass then and still are now. (I don’t have many friends, but pretty much all of the ones I do are, in one way or another.) And we both know that you were the more level-headed one! I love your mom for thinking it was me, but it surely wasn’t. And what I really, really wanted to say in both posts is, there’s no reason for shame, for either of us. We did some dumb things, for sure. (Like so many of the teens you and I have both worked with.) But we had good hearts and we were good for each other, in spite of that. (That’s my story, anyway.) I hate to think of the harm that might have come to me if I hadn’t had the friend I had in you. Junior high was a brutal pit, and you helped me climb out of it. Love you.
I love the description of the series of unconnected fragments that helped bring you some clarity/insight. In my experience, that’s how finding clarity usually works. (Anne Lamott actually features prominently in one such episode for me, which is probably the main reason I resist all Anne Lamott backlash).
Hi Gretchen! You must have sensed I’ve been lurking around your blog. Haven’t been feeling very chatty, but I like seeing what you’re up to. I couldn’t believe how much Abe has grown. It’s kind of strange, watching kids grow up online and feeling wistful as you watch them change, even though you’ve never met IRL.
I think the unconnected fragments are the only way I find clarity. It rarely comes in a flashing moment of insight, all at once. Dang it. In spite of my trouble with this quotation (pulled out of context–I tried to find the context, but couldn’t), I really love Anne Lamott’s writing. Bird by Bird was a revelation when I first read it more than 20 years ago. Trying to find the context for the quotation took me back to it for the first time in years, and I think I might have to re-read it.
He’s going to be FIVE in January. It’s completely ridiculous.
I came back because, in getting ready to talk about The Sound and the Fury with Ari (and his friend, Lula….we’re doing a tiny literature class this year, and I’m torturing them because I forgot just how tough Sound the Fury really is until I started re-reading it)….I came across this quote from an interview the Paris Review that I’d forgotten about: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one….If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.” Wrestling with the same question as Lamott, but without the same questionable rationalization. Although I guess the narcissism involved in reasoning that you HAVE to screw people over because you’re your generation’s Keats is not so noble, either. Maybe you can get away with it if you happen to actually be William Faulkner.
I’m never going to rob my mother (or children or friends or…) in the name of art. I don’t think I would even if I were Keats or Faulkner. Maybe that’s partly why I’ll never be them. Now I’m wondering if everyone who produces art that is deemed great (writers, anyway) is some kind of narcissist. Oh, hell–maybe all of them. The time it takes to make any kind of art makes it really difficult to be good to others. Maybe the other reason I won’t be one is that I will never think “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth even one old lady.
It IS completely ridiculous how quickly our babies/children grow up. Soak up all the snuggles you can.
Rita. I love this post.
It’s so hard to find the balance between story and love and what we owe ourselves and what we owe each other. (That last one may be projecting a bit of what I need into it, but that’s part of the whole writer/reader thing too.) Basically, I’m overwhelmed at how well you intertwine loving our younger selves, sharing our stories, and the struggle with Anne Lamott’s quote. I know we’ve talked about it before, but I’ll always struggle with that quote. I think we can really do damage to people we love by forgetting that their stories overlap our own but I also give her credit for giving people the permission they sometimes need to speak their truth (little t) despite what others will think of them (or themselves within the story).
I’ve thought a lot about the bonds we feel to people of that time (I don’t have as close of ones as I liked. We moved to a different state when I was 15, effectively severing the ties with my younger years friends without really having enough time to create a shared history with those of my later teen years) and wonder if part of it isn’t that these people loved us when we felt the most unlovable. It’s so hard to change and grow as quickly during that time and we’re just starting to realize how scary and hard the world can be and how vulnerable we are, the people who stand with us during that time really become safe places. Again, maybe that’s just me projecting, but I think there’s some magic to the friendships of that time in a life that you just can’t ever find again.
A different friend and I have tried to pin down what it is about old friends that make them so meaningful to us, and I think you just captured it. I’ve spent all of my adult life yearning for that kind of friendship connection again. When we all started into our adult lives, we separated and I remember thinking I’d make other friends like that again, but I never really did. I can see now that part of that is just time; we had so much more time then to pour into friendships. But I think it’s even more about what you say here. I’m starting to wonder if the transition I’m going through now might open up opportunity to deeper friendships, though. As in my teen years, I’m trying to figure out how to be (and the stakes feel high, kinda like they did then), and it feels vulnerable (I could make all the wrong choices!), and I have more free time than I’ve had in decades.
I really do want to find the context for that quotation. I have a feeling it might read differently with its context around it. I think her thoughts about most things are usually more layered than this snippet indicates.
“I hope, if you want to write the truth of your story, that you will feel able to do that.” (Reply Rita).
Dear Rita and Tina,
I hope that both have your particular thoughts shared and have come to a good place with all due respect to both. It sounds so to me.
This now may give you, Rita, some insight as to why I have not placed anything in writing, even a personal journal, as that is of record. (That may take a bit to process.) Just because you may think it non-published, or non-blog or non-Facebook or non-social media—just the process of a writing down on paper becomes record of witness as non-fiction or could be referenced as fictional ideas.
The day after I posted my comment, Rita, my brother announced his contract to a sixth book by a well known publisher.
Keep in mind that he does not write about our family, but about non-fiction subject matter that is of his personal interests. This one particular chapter of our family in a particular, and lovely novel, was unusual for him to share such personal heart matters. That may also be part of why I didn’t notice the author as much as I noticed the title and subject story telling. I certainly wish that he would take a second to that story telling as so much has changed in the particular city as well as his own growth as a person. I can only wish.
I must say it is odd to read what he writes because I actually hear his voice, tone, get it stuff, in my head when I read what he writes, although I definitely know that he is not writing to me. I wonder if your son, especially your daughter hears your voice in your written words.
As you can tell, I’m not a writer…but I might find that particular person who is able to write for me…
There is that very fine tight rope that writers walk to tell ones own story without crossing the unknown boundaries of another’s privacy.
My oldest brother would do verbal storytelling. I would say to my mother; as adults mind you, he is lying 🤥,! Mother would support him with, oh he embellishes…
What makes a family is we are all our own individuals, unique so to say.
But yea, I would like to write my story…but it is not one, it is many (short stories of living a complicated yet complete life).
That is what I love about your blog!