If You Can Talk, You Can Write: Telling YOUR Story

by Reyna Eisenstark

The birth of my first child, which ended well, was nevertheless extremely traumatic. So much so that I almost couldn’t bear talking about it at first. But I did eventually talk about it. I told the story for many years, and then I ended up writing about it, in an essay that was published 17 years after my daughter was born. Over the years of telling this story, and then writing about it, I noticed something interesting: The more times I told it, the less traumatic it felt. Its hold on me began to loosen.

Nancy Slonim Aronie, author, commentator, and Kripalu presenter, believes that this is precisely what storytelling is meant to do. “We all have stories to let go of,” she explains. “If you get it out of you in huge gusts of emotion, you’re not walking around constantly feeling it anymore. When you write the details, and you keep writing it, it will no longer be the biggest thing in the world. You get a larger frame for the story—it’s not your identity, it’s something that happened to you.”

We all have stories—some that we’ve been sharing for years, and some that we’ve been telling ourselves for years, but no one else has ever heard. What keeps us from writing them down for others to read? For one thing, a fear of the vulnerability and judgment that comes from putting your feelings into words.

That’s partly why Nancy famously does not allow negative comments in her workshops. She takes tons of notes as people read their work, then models how to give positive feedback. “I don’t teach writing; I teach gushing!” she says. “If someone says, ‘That sentence is brilliant!,’ you will learn from being told what’s good about your writing.”

For Nancy, a personal narrative should always sound like the person telling it: “The power comes from being able to be you, without trying to impress anybody. If you can talk, you can write.” She admits that some people are nervous when they come to her workshops, but the fear quickly goes away, because her focus is on creating a safe space for all participants. She does that by being vulnerable herself, and also because she’s naturally funny. “Humor really disarms people,” she notes, while also relaxing them and allowing them to open up.

“My job is to reclaim your joy and your voice,” she says—and this is especially significant for women, whose stories, Nancy points out, have historically been suppressed. “A lot of women’s voices were shut up. So many women were not listened to by the male-dominated society. It’s been like that forever. But we are the storytellers. I want everyone to feel that their story is worth telling.”

Nancy wants women to understand that their voices are one-of-a-kind, and to help them get their rage and sorrow onto the page. “I sneak in the healing,” she says. “The healing is the byproduct.” The key is being honest and straightforward and letting the reader (or listener) feel and connect to your story. “I want to be able to say, She’s me.” 

A Writing Exercise to Try

Finish this sentence: "My mother never told me ...."

Here are Nancy's instructions for the exercise: "Put on a timer. Write for 15 minutes. Do not try to write for anyone but yourself. Let the words come without wondering how smart you sound. Get out of your own way. The writing is about process, not product! This is not school—it’s writing from your beautiful heart!"

Reyna Eisenstark is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. She writes a blog inspired by stories from her life.