Breaking Silence

What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak, It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.

—Gaston Bachelard

Often we are silenced early in life. In first grade, a teacher reprimands you for using the "wrong" definition of imagination. You learn to speak only if you have the "right" answer. Your friends mock you when you voice an opinion too far afield of the group's center and you learn to keep your ideas to yourself.

Sometimes we are silenced subtly and sometimes brutally but most of us learn silences around the tender cores of who we are. Narrative (the word I'll use for both fiction and creative nonfiction in this chapter) offers the possibility of exploding the confines of "right" and "wrong." You are not bound to any definition of correctness when you write. Your story is right because it's yours. You define it. You write your truth.

In doing so, you move closer to your authentic voice. And in a sense, by finding— through writing—your own story, you come closer to appreciating human experience in general. You begin to see the connections we make through the stories we tell.

Most likely, your story is not an easy one. You may have to explore painful memories or face sorrowful losses. I'm not suggesting that you must write an autobiography or thinly veiled fictions about your childhood. I am suggesting that you let your writing take you to uncomfortable moments. The temptation for many of us is to stop writing when we get to these "heated" moments. Resist temptation and let yourself sweat a little. The heat has something to teach you.

You may want to write "happy" stories, to avoid getting bogged down by pathos. But happy stories that deny suffering are flat. They lack the dimension that makes us human, the dimension often located in our most painful memories and silences.

The truth is, you cannot really hide from that dimension. However strongly you may resist the heat of your story, it will keep rising to the surface. Let it rise. Write it.

Writing Practice

1. Think back to a time in your life when you were silenced. Describe the details of the situation without naming the emotions. If you don't remember names or other details, make them up.

2. Put the story aside for a day or two.

3. Return to and reread the story. Now freewrite a response for 10 minutes. Use as much emotion as you feel.

4. Finally, rewrite the story. Imagine changing your response or the response of someone else involved in the event. What would you have said or done to change the outcome? What would you have had someone else say to protect you?

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