Readers often thank me for sharing my personal story of battling an anxiety disorder in my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God.
“You’re so brave to have written this,” they say. “I’d be embarrassed to share something so personal.”
Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was being brave in recounting my experience with anxiety. I lost all my privacy boundaries when I gave birth to my third child in a room crowded with medical personnel. Once you’ve had an audience of strangers watch you push a child down the birth canal, there’s not much left that can embarrass you.
Another reason it surprises me to be described as “brave” is that all I’ve done is tell a true story about the ways my head, body, and spirit responded to taking a shelter dog into our home. It’s also true that I didn’t want the dog, but when I realized how the dog was helping me change my life for the better, I immediately wanted to tell that good news to other women who might be suffering with anxiety as I had.
First and foremost, I wanted to share my story to help others. I’d learned something new and valuable, and even though the therapeutic value of animals has been a popular research topic in recent years, I wanted to frame that information in a fresh way that would encourage readers to make that information work for them, too. Basically, I used myself as the proof in the research pudding.
And here’s where a true story encounters craft: it is the writer’s challenge to make the story simultaneously personal AND universal .
We all have experiences that are common to the human condition, yet people relate most deeply to the universal when it becomes intensely personal. Over the years of my writing career, I’ve learned that it’s the writer’s intimate voice and transparency (I’m talking about total honesty here!) that are key to combining the universal and personal. For example, if you tell me you’ve had a traumatic experience, I can nod and say “so have I,” but unless you give me the details of how it personally impacted you, I won’t be looking for similarities in our stories. That means you, as a writer, have to seek out and name the personal aspects of the universal that will engage your readers. You have to dig up the reality – expose the heart and soul – of the experience you want to share.
Make no mistake – digging in your life can be painful for you and those around you. With luck, though, it will be ultimately illuminating and healing, too.
And when you do that with your own story, you give your readers the permission, and hopefully, the courage, they might need to be honest with themselves in their lives. Honesty really is the best policy for a writer, because it’s the key to connecting compellingly with your audience as you make the universal very personal.
How do you approach the universal in your writing?
6 Replies to “Honesty is the Best Policy”
I had to laugh so much about the giving-birth thing! 😀 so that’s what it’s good for if they all watch you! 😀 I think I finally understood some things 🙂
Glad it gave you a laugh to start your day! I’ve found that so many experiences are much funnier, or finally make sense, when they’re in the rear-view mirror! Blessings on you!
This is so true. And it’s good to be able to laugh at them at least after a while. That makes life so much easier.
A great post, Jan. And your comment about making the story simultaneously personal AND universal is true in any genre. Whether an author writes fiction or non-fiction, the story sings when it can touch every person who reads it.
Very helpful advice, Jan. Thank you for sharing!
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