Your elephant is large and cumbersome. She’s über-clumsy, stumbling from buffet table to booth, lurching into the brass railing, tipping over the extra chairs. Always, she’s stepping on someone’s toes.
She comes in many colors, your elephant. Addiction, chronic pain, child abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, and sudden death.
Even though it’s evident she’s right smack in the room, lumbering about, wreaking unintended havoc, people pretend not to see her.
They quickly grab their clean plates, fill up on cold prawns and Caesar salad, and scurry out of the way.
When she lumbers into the wall, they avert their eyes, dab napkins at disapproving lips, and politely change the subject.
When the Story is “Too Much”
Tough stories are tough to tell. Some people find them tough to hear. Others don’t want to listen at all.
I get it. Tough topics are uncomfortable. Tough tales force us to confront issues we may not wish to see or read. Such stories may summon fear, shame, anger, sadness, disgust, or embarrassment.
They remind us of our weakest selves.
I disagree that some stories can be “too much.” I believe that the toughest stories of all are the ones we most need to hear, to write, to tell. Perhaps such silenced stories are those most in need of shouting.
Perhaps the whispered ones deserve the strained effort it takes to actually hear.
Confession and Confusion: Notes for a Messy, Miraculous Life
Words entrap us; words set us free.
In the 1950s and into the 1960s (and continuing to this day), a movement called Confessional Poetry emerged. Subjects once taboo — trauma, incest, violence, abuse — were now penned into poetry by poets such Robert Lowell, Charles Bukowski, Anne Sexton, and Sharon Olds.
Sylvia Plath penned the pain of childhood trauma in “Daddy.”
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
Plath’s words hold us in horror and her remembered pain. We recognize her anguish. We observe the cold, deep beauty of her expressed art.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
To what end, her poem? Part pain, part revenge, part eloquence, part impulse. In the end, do we know?
In the end, perhaps this: we hear her voice.
Plaintive, silenced. But also loud, expressed.
At twenty years of age, my son suddenly died.
He was bright, beautiful, and troubled. His shocking death ripped my life — and the collective lives of our entire family — into a million-and-one splintered fragments of pain, guilt, and regret.
As a mother, I tell you this: I would offer up my own remaining years (and even all that came before) for my son’s continued life. I would walk straight into death’s black jaws if he could return, unscathed.
Such despair is hard to witness.
Hard to read about as well.
I wrote about his death. Many readers were supportive. Keep writing, they urged. Tell the story, they said.
But always, whispery messages wormed their way to my Inbox.
Are you sure you should be writing about this?
I could never write publicly about such a personal thing.
Is this the right venue?
Maybe your perspective will change over time.
I hope you don’t regret writing this.
How do you think your other children feel?
I could never write about that.
* * * * * * * * *
I’d like to say those words didn’t affect me. I’d like to state they didn’t color my thoughts, or darken my purpose.
Words have power. They possess the strength to build, and they also contain the magnitude to shake and destroy.
Some days, those whispers halted my pen. Some days, they made me retreat to silence.
Now, they make me write.
Because words have power. And I’d rather harness their unknown strength than deny their ability to reach the ears of those who may most need to hear.
Orwell’s Reasons to Write
In his 1946 essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell expressed his four driving motivations for putting pen to paper.
First, “sheer egoism,” for the writer is, at heart, a human with a need for recognition, consideration, belonging, and love, filled with conflicting and maddening desires for fame, blessing, and money.
Second, “aesthetic enthusiasm,” for the appreciation of language’s beautiful and myriad possibilities. Writers paint with words, sounds, and images. The page is the writer’s canvas.
Third, “historical impulse,” which lends a reporter’s eye to the world, the way it is, and the way it remains when represented in writing.
Fourth and finally, “political purpose,” described as the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
One More Reason to Write
Commonality — The Beauty of Cohesive Empathy
People who exist on the fringe — The outcast. The minority. The marginalized. The destroyed. The suffering. The failed. The damned.
People who live through (or stand witness to) what most others have not: tragedy, trauma, injustice, pain, cruelty, abuse, combat, resettlement, disease, violence, mental illness, disability, upheaval.
Those whose voices are unheard. Those whose topics are taboo. Those whose words are silenced.
These are the stories we must hear. Those are the stories we must read. These are the stories we must write.
If we have survived the extraordinary, we can turn to the ordinary weapons of pen and paper to record what happened.
We are champions of experience. With word and story, we reach others to say: here is what happened. Here is the pain and anger and sadness and mess.
And this: here is what survived. And perhaps, through my words, you can survive too.
For those on the outside, we can allow them into our suffering.
For those inside, we provide cohesive understanding. A union. A pact of togetherness.
For both groups, we create commonality. Through story, we let empathy take root, blossom, and grow.
All through words.
All through story.
Inviting the Elephant In: Reasons to tell your “Too Much” Tale
Bring your elephant.
Not everyone will appreciate your elephant. Most people want you to leave her at home, tucked into your back bedroom. There, she’s less aggressive, insistent, and stubborn. There, she can’t be heard angrily trumpeting in the night.
Bring her out: Tell the story anyway.
Why tell your story?
1. Give a voice to the unvoiced
What is silenced is often unheard. At worst, it is hidden in the attic or stuffed in the cellar. Letting those who lack a voice speak allows them the chance to tell their story, to be heard, and to be listened to.
2. Democratize discussion topics
Culture defines us and limits us. Moving beyond accepted (and “acceptable”) topics requires pushing beyond societal norms. Your story can help uncomfortable topics become more public, or at least more open to discussion.
3. Reduce the effects of stigma
Mental health, addiction, illness, disability, death — and the list goes on. Telling a story from real, lived experience may help reduce the stigma, mythology, and perceptions surrounding taboo or suppressed topics.
4. Politicize, normalize, and equalize suffering, trauma, and loss
Our success-driven culture pushes suffering and loss into the shadows. In reality, these experiences are an integral part of our humanity; their inclusion into narrative and public discussion can ease the suffering and marginalization of survivors.
5. Create assistive compassion
As a survivor — or person living with your condition or loss — you can create connection for those who could benefit from your experience and expertise. You may tell your story as a compassionate champion for your cause, creating cohesive empathy for those who stand both inside and outside your lived experience.
6. Use experience for purpose
Famously, Viktor Frankl proposed his theory of “logotherapy.” This idea asserts that we may find meaning and purpose even in the face of unchangeable suffering. Locating purpose through sharing your narrative to serve others is one viable way to practice transformative storytelling.
Revisiting the Elephant
Let’s talk about it.
Let’s talk about the messy, crazy, awful, terrible things that make us human.
Le’s discuss the sad, horrible, misty-eyed, inevitable, tragic stuff of life.
Let’s tell the stories, good and bad, happy and sad, forestalled and forgotten, unvoiced and repressed, that make up this mystical mixture of the Everyday.
Let’s talk about it all.
We are all filled with story. I have one to tell, and so do you (and you and you and you).
Let’s democratize the telling. Let’s hear the voices — all of them. Let’s sit in a circle and light a fire, listen, nod, and hear the stories told, one at a time, and altogether.
For the narrative of one of us is the narrative of all of us.
And each one of us deserves to be heard.