Owning a story

This month (November) is National Novel Writing Month and I always see one of my friends working on this and wanted to give it a try. Like a lot of people I felt overwhelmed by the idea of writing that much and I haven’t done fiction for a very long time so I’m not sure where it’ll go. I have been thinking a lot about the kinds of people I meet in my life, in my job and also personal time, and the importance of keeping stories alive and how it affects the way that I define myself. One of my therapy interests is in narrative therapy, which encourages clients in therapy to craft their own stories about who they are, what they value and what their experiences mean. It’s been interesting for me since I realize that dis-empowerment is a common theme in many people’s lives and through re-negotiating what story gets told, a person can bring back power that was taken away from them.

For example, as a woman I often feel dis-empowered about the autonomy of my body. This has occurred in a wide spectrum of settings to the very private to the public. Experiences with men who feel they own my body or get to say what I do with it aren’t limited to sexual relationships or abortion bills in Congress. I felt I didn’t own my own body when I was getting a tattoo a year ago and my tattoo artist kept pushing me down into the couch because I was shaking from the pain, and was frustrated and angry when I said I wanted to stop. He insisted the tattoo “wasn’t finished” and it wouldn’t look good, and it was more important to him that his art look a certain way than for me to feel okay. (It’s still not finished by the way, I keep the unfinished lines to remember that nobody gets to tell me when I’ve had enough.) I felt I didn’t own my own body when I used to ride public transit and men would sit next to me without asking, proceed to look me up and down, or aggressively flirt with me even after I lied and made up a boyfriend or husband to get them to stop. I felt I didn’t own my own body when male clients thought it was okay to call me sweetheart or kiss me on the cheek or arm (weird, gross) at the end of our last meeting because that was how they wanted to say goodbye to me and it didn’t matter that I was uncomfortable because my job is to make them feel better and not apparently not have feelings of my own. I feel I can’t work with certain men because of this sense of ownership and sometimes I worry that therapy as a profession in some way perpetuates the idea that men can buy us for whatever use they have without needing to consider our personhood. But maybe that’s a topic for another post.

I have stories like this I could tell for a long time, some of them too personal to share in this medium. The point is, to be in certain types of bodies in this world we often don’t feel like we get to own them fully. People of color and people with disabilities have experiences like this often, experiences that I as a white person don’t understand. Experiences where another type of body is emphasized as normal and right and regulations are unfairly placed on their bodies that aren’t placed on others. Violence of any kind makes a person lose ownership of themselves, especially if it’s unchecked violence or violence from an authority figure like police brutality or rape from a trusted adult. These experiences make people not feel at home in their own skin, and if you can’t be at home with yourself it’s hard to feel you belong anywhere. Giving name to this can bring some healing, and creating a place of one’s own to belong to.

So back to writing. Writing is one thing that we can own, completely and fully. The things that we say have power but that power is strengthened when we put it to ink because it becomes permanent. All we know of someone who is no longer here is what they wrote, because memory fades and changes as others tell it. Telling your own story creates the definitive, lasting version of it. The power of writing fiction is that you’re no longer bound by the truth, so in that creation you can have a re-do of whatever you’ve lived and in another character design the solutions you’d have wanted in your actual life.

I don’t feel I’m very good at writing fiction as an adult but maybe that’s not true because I’m bad at telling stories factually. People in my life are always reminding me that things didn’t happen in the way or the order I remember them, but I usually like my versions better and so do the people listening. So for November I’m going to give it a try and see what characters I can come up with and watch what they’ll do, and whatever comes out of it is something I will just accept as what I’ve made.

For more information about National Novel Writing Month, check here at NaNoWriMo‘s website.

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