Writing to Awaken

I started to write compulsively when I was in the second grade: journals filled with secret thoughts and shameful truths that I could tell no one. Many writers begin this way, turning inward as children to look for answers they can’t find around them. These notebooks were my confessional, the place where I could reveal my true feelings and try to make sense of myself and the world.

I always felt better after I wrote. No matter how anxious, confused, or unsettled, my mind was clarified by writing. It was like flipping on a light in a darkened room; with words to describe what was blocking my way, suddenly I could see my way forward. Language helped navigate my inner world—I no longer felt helpless or trapped. Afterward, I could reread what I’d written and locate clues about who I was, what I was thinking, and why this person inside me was so drastically different from what others saw.

This difference came as a revelation. The voice pouring out of me onto the page, separating truth from lies, was my fearless and natural self. This self was hidden behind a mask, a fictional story that I called “me.” This mask wasn’t me by a long shot, however. Writing freely, without disguise, the gap between the mask and truth—between story and self—became glaringly obvious. Odd as this disconnect was at first, I realized that it was the gateway to freedom. Through it, a message emerged loud and clear: I am not my story. This life-changing truth has defined my work as a memoirist, teacher, and spiritual seeker over the course of 30 years.

What does it mean to say “I am not my story?” Students ask me this all the time. “Are you saying that what happened to me didn’t happen?” Of course not. “Are you calling me a liar, like I’m making these things up?” Not at all. What I’m acknowledging—along with a vast majority of psychologists, physicists, and spiritual teachers—is that what we believe to be real is not reality. The mind creates stories out of things that happen and composes a character they happen to. We then take these false stories for fact and live as if they are the actual truth.

We do this because we are Homo Narrans, the storytelling species, the only animal in all of existence that creates a conceptualized self. We invent ourselves at every moment—connecting the dots, developing plot lines, revising scenes, replaying old dramas—by composing a solid narrative with this fictional self at the center. We fully believe that our story is real, which is why when I tell students that every life is a work of fiction, they quite often feel existential confusion. Luckily, this confusion doesn’t last long.

Seeing that the story isn’t ourselves is a quantum leap in self-realization and the starting point of a whole new life. The radical act of telling the truth awakens us automatically. When we write down our story, we become the witness, and this objective distance brings an aha! as the character we believed to be solid reveals itself as a narrative construct. 

When you tell the truth, your story changes.

When your story changes, your life is transformed.

Why is telling the truth so radical? Because we rarely do so completely in social life. As socialized animals, we’re taught to hide our feelings, to protect reputations, conventions, and interests. We’re liars of necessity, fear, and convenience. Imagine if everyone told the whole truth—regardless of the consequences. It would be a brutal nightmare! To avoid incrimination and cruelty, we opt instead for versions of the truth, euphemisms, half-lies, and tidied-up candor. Though we’re mostly honest, most of the time, civilized life calls for reticence and cooperation breeds compromise.

Then there is the matter of shame. We tolerate such heavy loads of it that revealing the truth can seem menacing, as if uncensored honesty might wreak havoc on our carefully manicured lives. Shame tends to keep us dishonest and silent, sitting on our secrets, trapped in the dark. That is why finally telling the truth—in writing, therapy, or a church confessional—has such a catalytic effect. We’re awakened by its unmistakable sound, like the pealing of a bell. Once we’ve rung that bell, it can’t be unrung. We’re called on to live with what we know since the fiction of self no longer traps us. We understand why we have felt inauthentic—in subtle as well as obvious ways. Wiping away the mask of lies, we reveal our true face in the mirror through writing, often for the first time.

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Excerpted with permission from Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation, and Self-Discovery, © 2017, by Mark Matousek.