Commentary: In storytelling, sharing joy and understanding

Janet Benton

is a writer in Wyncote

After decades of writing and mentoring writers, I see that this is true:

We each have one story to tell above others, a story given to us by our particular placements in life.

These placements are mostly arbitrary. They include to whom we're born and what catastrophic or otherwise transformative events grab us. These features of our existence may feel like burdens. They are also treasures.

In each life, this story is the gold.

A 60-some-year-old woman had recently finished treatment for cancer when she came to me for help. She wanted to finish a memoir she'd been drafting slowly for years. She impressed me as intelligent, sensitive, sophisticated, and oppressed by the responsibility she felt to her story, to the point that holding on to it seemed to have made her physical and emotional existence tight and painful.

And no wonder. Decades earlier, the woman's pregnant sister had been murdered - brought out by her husband into a dangerous environment from which she didn't return. Her body was never found, and a body was necessary to establish guilt. The husband was never found guilty in a criminal court.

Even decades later, when we began our work and the husband was dead, it was hard for the woman to accept that he had meant for her sister to die. She braced herself, read through the depositions, court records, and newspaper stories, and contacted a man involved in the criminal-court case after her sister's disappearance. He said it had always been clear to him that the woman's sister had been murdered by her husband. The recorded testimonies of others, too, made that conclusion hard to deny.

Accepting this brought a little relief - the relief of no longer wondering.

But her sister's death had ravaged this woman. Depression dogged her. She'd thought of her sister's dying moments, trying to create equivalent circumstances briefly for herself, to see what they might have been like. She'd interviewed old friends, searching for insight into why her sweet sister had trusted such a person. She'd read widely on grief and tried multiple modes of healing. Nothing brought resolution like the process of writing. The woman was not a writer; she was learning only to tell this story. As she forced herself to face the work, she saw this on the horizon: peace.

But it was threatened by her fear of mortality. At only our second meeting, she said: "If I get cancer again and die, will you finish this book for me and try to get it published?" Stunned and honored, I said yes.

About two years later, the woman got cancer again. She decided against further chemotherapy after several rounds brought no benefit. Though she was weak and had much else to do, she sped up our schedule of work.

Our last meeting was in her color-filled apartment, two weeks or so before she died. She was dressed and able to walk, though having a hard time eating. We sat at her dining table in the bright sun, reviewing her final chapters. Then we put them aside and beheld each other.

Her face was thin; her hair was sparse. She said she would be leaving the manuscript with a relative, who would choose whether or not to polish it and share it with others. I was saddened to think that the story - a story that had grabbed the neck of this woman's life and never let it go - might be abandoned to a storage unit or some other benighted place. Yet I was also relieved not to be given sole responsibility for her story's rescue. For I had my own neglected, half-told tales to bring into the light. As we hugged goodbye, her body fierce and bony against mine, we exchanged thanks for our years of work together.

"I did it," she said. "I finished." We squeezed hands in parting. Slowly, as if half-dreaming, I made my way through the city and back home.

Soon thereafter, the woman died. I took the reins of my almost-finished novel more tightly in hand and rode it to the finish line.

This woman wasn't the only client whose situation has moved me deeply. I've seen writers-in-process become unable to hold pens, hardly able to sit up or speak, unable to think clearly due to medicines or mental decline, sidelined by addiction. But this woman had unusual persistence. The fact that she kept trying to tell her story, and that it pressed on her until the very end - this is strong proof of how much meaning is found in the process of telling. Annie Dillard wrote in Living by Fiction (1982), "Meaninglessness in art is a contradiction in terms." In writing, one hammers out the truths of what one has been given.

The storyteller's work is rarely compensated. Most of us simply can't afford to dedicate thousands of hours to something unpaid. Yet sometimes we do it regardless. Because nearly everything of value is done regardless.

If you have a story that's a burden and a treasure, I urge you to tell it. There is purpose in the telling. There are understanding, forgiveness, even joy to be found. And the stories of individuals are needed in this world. Whoever you are, your story can change others for the better by making us care.

It doesn't have to be perfect. Just start telling it now.

janet.thewordstudio@gmail.com