Telling Your Own Story


John Updike says he’s in complete control of his characters; he actually crafts the final sentence first, pins it up on his cork board and then writes his novel toward that finale. In direct contrast, Per Petterson says he has no control whatsoever over his characters and considers it cheating not to tell the readers whatever he knows as soon as he knows it (“you have to empty the well so you can fill it up again,” Per says). The point here is not to take sides, to become an Updikian or a Pettersonian (or a Steinbeckian or Lamottian or whatever). Rather, the point is that there is no one way to tell your story, either the fictional kind or the grind-of-life kind.

There is no one way to raise kids or build a life or do good in this world. It takes little courage to mimic another genius or wise soul. However, it requires much courage, as well as much skill and tenacity and chutzpah, to tell us your story the one way you have to tell it. There are lots of vehement voices these days insisting that the wise or just person must unequivocally see what they see, respond how they respond, get riled up the way they get riled up. Some of these folks are well-meaning, some are blowhards. Either way, you or I couldn’t possibly take on, in the same measure, everyone’s angst, couldn’t possibly take on everyone else’s top priority as our own. We must pay attention to the fire simmering in our own heart, must doggedly guard that place where we bear unique responsibility. You can’t tell another person’s story. We do, however, really, really need you to tell your own.


4 Replies to “Telling Your Own Story”

  1. Thank you Winn for your thoughts on writing our stories. I have written two, both were written for something greater than myself (Orphan work in Africa) It was the only way I raised courage enough to write about me. The hardest part of giving voice to our story is holding back expectation of the “interest” in our story. Writing is lonely and writing about ones life is even lonelier. In a sea of books and voices and stories and social media it is easy to get lost. One (I found) must write for some higher reason I think. Thank you for making me think about my “Why”

  2. Let me add my thanks for your thought-sharing and eloquence. I have enjoyed reading your postings and surely hate to end our “association,” but I have become quite old and infirm and need to close down my email activities. Please keep your thoughts available to new readers! They will love them too. Marian Hutchison

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