Student-Authored Projects

Storytelling and Identity: Writing Yourself Into Existence

Sara Aird

This text was developed for English 2040: Writing Studies and was the culminating project of the class. The purpose of the assignment was to create a meaningful text grounded in the writing thresholds central to the Open English @SLCC Pressbook that would support writing instruction at SLCC. This paper shows how the elements of storytelling restore identity after trauma and highlights the idea that writing shapes how we do, be and make in the world.

Storytelling brought me to Salt Lake Community College, specifically the desire to tell my story. Until recently, I would not have considered myself a writer, even though my life was compelling me to write. For the last ten years, I had been on a journey inside myself. Events in the present had awakened events from the past, revealing a chronically traumatic and forgotten story and self. Joseph Campbell coined the term “the hero’s journey,” a quest from the known to the unknown, in which the protagonist confronts and overcomes overwhelming obstacles and emerges transformed. The journey grants the hero wisdom and new life. Confronting my traumatic childhood began my hero’s journey.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk explains traumas are not simply events from the past, but “the imprint left by that experience on the mind, brain, and body.” He goes on to say, “It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.” With an altered perception of reality, he adds, “traumatized people chronically feel unsafe in their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.” Living in a constant state of alert and distress, “they learn to hide from their selves.” Trauma changes who we are and how we operate in the world. We often disconnect from our reality and our sense of self. When the unspeakable occurs, we seek to make sense of what has happened. In an effort to feel safe again, we create a story, but that story is often grossly distorted, influenced by the powerlessness and horror of what we have suffered. The story is a reflection of the traumatized self. Because of trauma, my life story was incomplete, inaccurate, and damaging.

Storytelling offers a powerful space to reclaim ourselves and discover our hero’s journey. Using timeline, scene-setting, voice and point of view, and character development, we recover our choices. Where we felt powerless and confused about our experiences, we can write our wisdom and power into existence. Where we lost our “selves,” we can “compose (write) ourselves into being while also composing (calming or settling) ourselves into a particular view of the world” (Christiansen, 2016).

 

TIMELINE

Many people know their personal timeline, the consistent narrative that flows within them. I did not. My timeline had enormous holes. Large chunks of time were completely missing. In fact, it always felt like my timeline began in the third grade; the time before felt empty. Some memories floated around aimlessly; I didn’t know where they fit. Other memories were fuzzy and incomplete. A few memories didn’t seem to belong to me. My most recent memories had some clarity, but as you traveled back the details faded quickly. As a result, the whole timeline felt unsteady.

When my daughter was born, new memories surfaced. It was as though her timeline began uncovering the missing elements of my timeline. When she started preschool, the revelations became frequent and intense. They didn’t come as full stories, and they didn’t come in the right order. They came as fragments in disarray. I called those fragments “my bowl of pieces,” and I needed to organize them to understand them.

When writing a story, the timeline is central. Stories consist of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Lisa Bickmore, in our OEP, gives insight into the importance of this storytelling element:

When we, as readers, sit down to read a story, we expect certain things. One is a timeline that we can follow. Some stories use complex timelines, flashing ahead or flashing back. Some stories keep the timeline simple, starting with the earliest event, and moving ahead deliberately to the end, or final event. But no matter how the writer manages the timeline, in a story, a reader expects to be anchored explicitly in time, and to be able to orient him or herself in time. [See “The Narrative Effect: Story as the Forward Frame.”]

Storytelling requires the writer to organize events along a timeline: what comes first, what follows, how does this event relate in time to that event; but what if the writer is also trying to anchor themselves in time and orient themselves in relation to the events of their story?

During my trauma recovery, I investigated my memories, puzzling out the details to orient myself to their time and place, discovering the relationships between them. The first way I wrote my story was a timeline. I sat at my computer with “my bowl of pieces” and made a list, arranging the memories from the beginning to the present, using small phrases to label the pinpoints of my life. I took a once fragmented and incomplete narrative and constructed the framework, grounding myself in the events of my life and how they unfolded, and laying a foundation for my sense of self.

 

SCENE-SETTING

When I began therapy, my sessions frequently ended with dissociation. It was a coping mechanism I had used for decades to manage my traumatic experiences. To dissociate is to disconnect from the body, your sense of self, and your personal history. In this case, I dissociated from my sensory experience. When the traumatic triggers became too overwhelming, my therapist invited me to describe my surroundings: what I could see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, to bring me back into my body when I wanted to escape it. It was a difficult exercise and required a lot of practice.

Lisa Bickmore also discusses the importance of sensory details in creating a world for the reader to live in:

As readers, we also hope for an opportunity to see into a vivid story-world that has a sense of lived-in-ness, of detail and texture. This is what Herman refers to as the “qualia”—the “what it is like”–ness of a story. Writers create the worlds of their stories by using sensory detail, but also by evoking the narrator’s or other character’s states of mind.

It is through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste that the reader gets an enhanced experience of the story. Readers are allowed to enter into the world of the writer, to experience what it is like to live there.

I did not want to exist in the world I lived in. I sought to escape it by cutting myself off from its sensations and details. When I wrote about dissociation in therapy, I challenged myself to describe what the office looked like, the feel of the chair on my skin, the sound of my therapist’s voice, the dryness in my mouth.

It is appointment day. I am driving to my therapist’s home where he has a basement office. It is musty; the house has a smell that is not familiar to me. In a few minutes, I will be engulfed in an old, over-sized, fuzzy chair in a dimly lit room, the material itching my skin, the dust motes floating in the air, and report on my week. When I arrive, I am annoyed. My therapist always seems so calm and peaceful during our sessions, sitting in his old, over-sized, fuzzy chair speaking in his low, rounded, extended tones. Every week I sit in that chair in that office, and I squirm and fidget, desperate to get out of my skin. Even though the lighting is faint, I feel like a glaring spotlight is hovering over me, exposing every inch of my body, exposing every flaw and weakness. I cough, my mouth dry and irritated. He looks at me like I am supposed to have answers and explanations, waiting for me to have a breakthrough. But I don’t break through, I am stuck. All I want to do is escape.

Writing the sensory details around my desire to dissociate helped me learn how to be in my body again; to write was to find a way to live in my world. The act of recreating my world made it feel real and “lived in,” allowing me to reconnect to myself and my personal history.

 

VOICE AND POINT OF VIEW

In addition to dissociating from my sensory experience, I dissociated from parts of myself. I rejected the parts of me that had lived through the trauma, cutting them off and hiding them away. It was as if my soul had been severed into dozens of pieces. My intense personal rejection showed up as chronic self-loathing and harsh, negative self-talk. Each of those abandoned parts of myself carried specific stories, pain, and roles to play. My writing reflected the division; the third-person point of view demonstrated the separation and my unwillingness to claim those parts of myself.

At home and everywhere else, I collapse into a version of myself I don’t even recognize, and with whom I am completely disgusted. She seems capable of so little and requires so much rescuing. All she can see are her own problems, and they are enormous. I am furious with her. I want to kick her out, and I try but she keeps coming back. She keeps showing up, so burdensome and demanding. She’s unhappy when she goes to school. She is unhappy when she skips school. She doesn’t want to make dinner, then feels tremendous guilt for being lazy. She makes dinner, and it isn’t good enough. She wants to be alone. She needs to be close. She cries if the DVD player isn’t working. She is unfeeling when someone else has a bad day. She is a conundrum, a walking conflict. I don’t understand why I can’t bring Hero home with me. Hero would make everything better. Hero would clean up this mess and get us back on track. Hero feels like a suit I put on for work that dissolves the minute I leave, with me desperately trying to keep the pieces from slipping between my fingers. I need Hero, but most of the time I get Lump instead. Yes, let’s call her Lump.

The narrative voice is the point of view, the way in which the reader will hear and experience the story. The first-person point of view invites the reader to see the story through the author’s perspective. The narrative voice is a reflection of the writer’s personality, a reflection of who they are. The writer displays their voice in the way they tell their story, the words they use, the aspects they highlight, the feelings they describe. Through the writer’s voice, readers can experience an event in a unique way.

Storytelling became the way to bridge the gaps between my warring selves. I collected all the uncovered pieces of my personality and figured out where they intersect. Writing reunited them into a whole and realistic version of myself: first, by having those different perspectives interact together through the third-person point of view, and eventually, merging them into one solid and confident first-person point of view.

I try to do what my therapist encouraged me to do: be honest and tell her how I feel. I take a deep breath and I say, “I’m not okay, in fact, I’m severely depressed. Sometimes when I’m really low, I think how nice it would be to not be alive. I need help. I need to learn how to take care of myself. I want to be happy. I have a good life. I want to know how to enjoy it.”

 

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

My hero’s journey started when I realized the way I was living my life didn’t align with how I actually wanted to live my life. I wanted meaningful and authentic relationships with others, and I wanted to be an authentic and open person, but authenticity and meaning required feeling. My lifelong quest had been to avoid painful situations at all costs, a tall order when you are a human being, and in order to do this, I had inadvertently picked up weapons and defenses: judgment of self and others, black-and-white thinking, distrust and isolation, manipulation and denial. In my effort to silence the suffering, I also lost touch with the joy, peace, and gratitude in my life. In my resistance, my character became flat. I stopped growing.

It is a perfectly ordinary evening. I’ve curled myself up on my tiny couch anticipating one of my favorite TV programs. During each episode, a celebrity explores their family tree. They get to see where they came from and who came before them. Some of the discoveries are exciting, and others are hard to understand. The journey is almost always beautiful. Tonight an older woman is being interviewed. She sits on a small couch similar to mine. Her hair is gray, and her skin is wrinkled. Her clothes are old-lady clothes, also similar to mine. As she shares her story, I notice that I am incredibly annoyed, which is not the typical feeling for me during this TV program. I love this show, but I am totally irritated. She’s complaining and complaining and complaining. She has a life-long list of grievances, grudges, and hurt that has been festering for decades, which she is airing on national television. I think, Wow! This old lady is so bitter. She should really do something about that. And get off TV, because bitterness is annoying, and not at all beautiful. How can she live her life like that? As soon as I complete that thought, I am abruptly transported into a microscopic view of my very own life. Suddenly what I couldn’t see with my normal, ordinary, everyday vision is made completely clear. I am the bitter old lady before she actually became the bitter old lady. Outwardly, my life looks exactly how I imagined it, yet it lacks the feelings I always assumed would be there―contentment, joy, peace. All seems well, except that it’s not, because I have a list too. I have a detailed list of unresolved pain, disappointments, and resentments that I visit often. I go over my list, starting at the beginning of my life up to the present day, and remember all the hurt. I fully expect to add to that list on a weekly basis, if not daily. I see for the first time how this is destroying me, this enormous burden that I carry around, because I don’t know how to put it down. It is hollowing me out, to be one thing on the outside and something else on the inside.

Great stories have relatable characters, and relatable characters are complex. They have a combination of strengths and weaknesses; their personalities contradict. The reader experiences their complexity through physical descriptions, actions, and inner thoughts. Strong characters change and grow. Readers witness the journey and transformation of the character as she overcomes obstacles and works toward solutions, becoming something new through the process. The personal narrative offers a unique opportunity for self-transformation, as you are at once the narrator and the protagonist in the story. Ron Christiansen, in his OEP article “You Will Never Believe What Happened!”, shares an insightful quote:

We shape our identity through these stories. As Julie Beck, senior associate editor at The Atlantic, in “Life’s Stories” explains, “A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed.” Beck then uses Jonathon Adler, a psychologist, to expand on this idea: “You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story. … That can sometimes be a revelation—‘Oh, I’m not just living out this story, I am actually in charge of this story.’”

As the narrator to my own story, I regain control of the story. Where I once felt powerless, I now have power. I take my once flat character and fill her out; I explore my own complexity, contradictions, and seek to reveal the development that occurs through the journey.

I’ve become a shell. I am the leftover glossy exterior of an animal that once lived. Beautiful on the outside but nothing on the inside. Although, I think at one time I was. Alive. My harsh judgment for bitter old TV lady melts into compassion. She is a shell too. We are the same. Our shells are familiar and keep us safe. They’ve been painstakingly constructed layer by excruciating layer by the experiences that hardened us. The shell protects us. It’s how we feel safe. I can’t imagine life without the shell. I’ve had it for so long it’s like I am the shell and the shell is me. I am hard and impenetrable. I watch people tap the outside trying to find me, but I’m not here. I’m gone. I don’t know where I went. Instantly, a simple but hard choice unfolds before me. I find myself at a fork in the road of my soul. I can continue down this path, burdened by my pain and resentments, protected by my shell, until I’m only left with a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, or I can find a way to come alive. I don’t even know what being alive looks like, but I know I want it. I don’t want to discover at the closing of my life that I’ve grown only regret. I don’t know how to get started, but I know I need to start.

The personal narrative allowed me to take the main character, myself, and transform her, and in writing the transformation, I, the writer, am also transformed.

 

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

To be human is to search for meaning. I needed to find meaning and purpose in life events that felt hollow, disorienting, and purposeless. At least, I needed to discover what they meant to me. After a decade of seeking, I had been transformed and felt compelled to put the story in writing, to find the wisdom in what happened to me. My trauma changed me. It stole my identity and replaced it with a fractured perspective of myself and my life, a trauma story. I wanted to break that story down and create a new one.

Writing provides the way. Writing empowers me to reclaim myself and rewrite the narrative of my life. Finding meaning is challenging. I wrestle with the words, fight with the language, trying to communicate what has happened and how it has affected me. Writing is a sifting of the soul, an attempt to reveal the true person underneath. Where trauma negatively altered my view of myself, of people, and of the world around me, storytelling restored my choices. I choose how the timeline unfolds, the world in which I live, the sound of my voice, how I develop, and the purpose in my story. I write myself into the person I was always meant to be.

The most difficult part of writing my story is loving myself through the process. Storytelling is a journey of self-discovery, requiring growth and change, and growth and change can be painful. Compassion is a necessity on the journey. The final stage of writing yourself into existence will be accepting who it is you are finding, believing that who you are creating is real and true and worthy.

 

Works Cited

Bickmore, Lisa. “The Narrative Effect: Story as the Forward Frame.” Open English @SLCC: Texts on Writing, Language, and Literacy, openenglishatslcc.pressbooks.com/chapter/the-narrative-effect-story-as-the-forward-frame/. Accessed 20 Nov. 2019.

Christiansen, Ron. “‘You Will Never Believe What Happened!’—Stories We Tell.” Open English @SLCC: Texts on Writing, Language, and Literacy, openenglishatslcc.pressbooks.com/chapter/you-will-never-believe-what-happened-stories-we-tell/. Accessed 20 Nov. 2019.

Hunter, Lockie. “Exploring Intersections: An Exercise in Dismembering and Remembering Selves.” Brevity, 9 Sep. 2010, brevitymag.com/craft-essays/exploring-intersections/. Accessed 21 Nov. 2019.

van der Kolk, Bessel MD. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books, 2015.

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Open English @ SLCC by Sara Aird is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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