Casting My Own Stones
When I began to write “A Name for Regret” which appears in Issue 12 of The Quotable, I thought I was writing about a memory and little girl in Africa—about how each had been transformed in my heart by the passage of time. The first iterations were long, woven through with back story and introspection. Over the course of many re-writes, I had to peel away layers until I found the one tiny nugget at the center.
What I found was personal failure. Time hadn’t changed my memory; it had removed the filters from my lens. I could now clearly see my younger self, barely a woman, with shoulders too small to bear the weight of the human suffering around me. I saw a weakness in myself that the first, bloated drafts had obscured. My initial instinct was to shift the focus of my story, explain myself so the reader would not think less of me, but I know better. Readers can be shrewd skeptics.
For more than 20 years, I’ve made a modest living as a science writer, feature writer, copywriter, and most recently a writer of fiction. But these are other people’s stories. Exploring my own is a more brutal endeavor that I’ve only just begun.
That’s not to say I haven’t always written the stories of my life. Journaling is a habit as vital to my mental hygiene as daily brushing is to the preservation of my teeth. It helps me clear my brain of clutter without the fear of throwing away something I may need one day. But these are private musings. Writing for others is a different matter. Readers expect honesty without hyperbole. Rightfully, they demand that we dig deep without self-pity or indulgence.
Personal stories are a form of public vivisection requiring a delicate hand on the scalpel. Too much blood obscures the wound, too little bores the audience. I often marvel at how much memoirists reveal about their lesser selves, the risks they take, knowing they will be judged by strangers who tend to cheer only for characters with an admirable balance of strength and vulnerability. What if readers find the balance off? Good memoirists don’t seem to ask for love or absolution.
So, why then, do they do it? That’s the question I asked as I was peeling away the protective layers of my own story, “A Name for Regret.” It wasn’t until I had whittled my experience down to the one polished stone I knew to be true, that I understood. It was then that I felt compelled to cast my failures out into the world, to throw my stone into the riverbed. I wanted to see this part of me against the kaleidoscope of stones tossed into the water by so many others.
Let mine be unique but indistinguishable beneath the flow of human experience. Let mine belong.