Why Women’s Stories Matter

I was — I probably still am — an over-sharer.

I’m not afraid to tell the story about a sexual assault I experienced when I was in high school, how I didn’t try to get away. About the vicious fights my mothers exchanged while I was witness, just four years old. About my kidnapper, about getting cancer, about the weird things my body does now that medicine and surgery has modified it. I’m not afraid to tell those stories and I’m not afraid to hear them. No matter how gross the bodily fluid that was produced when they were happening and no matter how shocking one thinks the story may be.

Story-telling is life-saving. We don’t all get to experience terrible to the same degree, or hear the perspectives of the people who have witnessed. We don’t know the complexity of a common story until we hear it from the mouth of someone who experienced it in a particular way, who was met with a particular response. These stories we share are our only opportunity — sometimes — to better understand the multitude of scenarios one can encounter on life’s path.

Women’s stories are the stories that move me. I’ve spent time in library stacks looking for my tribe, my storytellers, those who’ve walked a path similar to my own. Often I have found no one shares a particular story with me. I’ve rifled through books looking for the voices that haven’t been given (or have not found) the medium to share their story. Perhaps they are not writers. Maybe they don’t want to tell others what happened to them. Perhaps they have been blamed for their stories. Maybe it’s just too risky to bear the distress that might come from someone who criticizes their story — be it in their writing of it or their perception of it. Storytelling is dangerous. Being a woman with a story to tell is dangerous.

If I could do one thing for the rest of my life it would be to help women explore their voices, their stories, their experience and to provide them an outlet to better understand those experiences. I’d line the walls with paper and tell them to choose their tools, to choose their colors, to write their stories in short sentences all over the walls, to color their space with their voices. I would give every woman I meet a journal. I’d tell her to not worry about the lines, the punctuation, the spelling, the legibility — just get it out even if you have to scratch your story into the paper with lead-less pencil. I’d hand them a microphone and I’d say: share.

Although I’ve always sought the wisdom of the women before me, it wasn’t until I broke away from published stories and sought stories from women without the constant drive to write that I learned about the complexities of motherhood, of being in an always ill body, of not being seen in older age, of not having access to hormones that make someone feel more feminine. You can read about these stories in your women’s studies class, you can talk about them in academia with great distance, but you don’t know the danger of being a woman until you keep your ears to the stories of the women all around you.

Two years ago I started A Reading of Her Own: Women’s Lives in Brief in this little town of Helena, Montana. It’s simple: women reading 800 word essays about their lives. I didn’t expect it to be well-attended, I didn’t expect it to go on, I didn’t expect it to grow, and I fully expected that I would run out of women who would be willing to tell their stories to a room of strangers. In a town of just under 30,000, I thought that I’d only be able to tap into our local authors and writers once and that we’d run out of voices. I didn’t know that every time I announced another event that my roster would quickly fill up. Sometimes from women with another story to tell, sometimes from women who had just learned about what we lazily now call RoHo.

We’ll have our next event in November. Another 14 women will go to the stage with their stories. Some will shutter and shake while they stand as if they are hiding behind the microphone and their audience will lean in harder as if to try and better see her. Some reader will giggle as she proclaims her sexuality in a loud voice while the crowd shifts with shared excitement and hums a soft laugh. Some women will dab their faces with rigid napkins at the story of losing a child, nearly losing a child, having a child finally. And there will always be a woman who comes alone to hear the stories, to see if she is brave enough to show up to the next event and excise her own story from the depths of her guts so that she can not only be free of it, but be with it in a room of strangers.

It’s there that we can all take a moment to see that story’s life be birthed before us, to see it grow and transform audience and the woman from which it came, and then we’ll watch that story dissipate into the ether, fall into our ears and find our guts, fertilizing the next wave of women’s stories that will surely come.

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