By Mark E. Smith
When I entered San Francisco State University’s creative writing program some two decades ago, I did so with one goal in mind – to be a better writer. After all, writing is a technical craft – not unlike painting or music – and if you want to get better at the craft, you expand your skill set. And, I wanted to possess the largest skill set possible so that, as a writer, I could write about virtually any topic, in any form. If writing was carpentry, I wanted the skills to build anything.
Upon my first week in the program, I realized it wasn’t what I expected. The fact was, I quickly learned that the true craft of writing wasn’t about technical skills at all. Yes, as students, we’d long learned the formalities of writing, with more to come. However, what we were there to really learn was the power and universal impact of stories. We learned what it was like to be impoverished and black in the south under Jim Crow laws through Alice Walker. We learned what it was like being a disenfranchised white, middle-aged male through Charles Bukowski. And, we learned what it was like to be a teenage heroin addict through Jim Carol. The stories went on and on, and we learned that every one has a story – ones of universal impact. We learned that writing wasn’t just about a skill set, but more so a deep acknowledgment of the human condition we all share.
As students, we were required to write with courage and vulnerability, to share our stories. Writing workshops, where you critique each others’ pieces, were cathartic, safe places where we could write and share the stories in our lives. The beautiful twenty-something who seemed to have it all wrote about her struggles with self harm, cutting her thighs with razor blades. The silent guy in the army surplus jacket wrote about being raped in his high school locker room by three jocks. And the happy-go-lucky, surfer dude wrote about living on friends’ couches because he was disowned by his parents when he came out as gay. What it taught us was that everyone had a story – including ourselves – and the true craft of writing isn’t just about telling stories, but honoring them.
During that time, my twenties, I was struggling with a lot. I was trying to understand my identity as one with severe cerebral palsy, and struggling with the guilt of separating myself farther and farther from my dysfunctional family. When we go through these periods of our lives – deep emotional struggles – it’s impossible to not feel alone. It’s unfortunately intrinsic to the process. Yet, our individual struggles – read that, stories – are universal to the human condition, and whatever we’re feeling or have experienced, we’re not alone.
What I gained from attending the two-year creative writing program – and writing of my struggles in the process – was recognizing the importance and vulnerability in sharing our stories, as well as embracing those of others. While there’s a time and a place for light conversation, it’s in sharing our stories that truly connects us.
Since that time, not the writer in me, but the person in me, has lived a life of connecting with others – through stories. Of course, I’ve shared mine countless times, as cerebral palsy can’t be hidden and understandably can become a topic. However, what’s shaped my life are the stories that others – with trust, courage and vulnerability – have shared with me. See, I’ve learned that no one’s story is more or less significant than another, just different. And, we intrinsically relate to them all. Pain, joy, sadness, fear, courage, failure, success, heartache, love, guilt, pride, resentment, elation, self-doubt, confidence and on and are all emotions that we universally share. They unite us.
However, sharing our stories does more than unites us. The process has far more power. Sharing our stories can heal, uplift, inspire, empower, and most of all the process shows us we’re not alone.
I don’t know what your story is. Maybe it’s one you’re struggling with alone. Or, maybe it’s a story that can help another person in your situation. Share your story. Let it out to someone, somewhere, in a safe place, where I promise it will change both your lives. None of us need to be writers to be courageous and vulnerable in sharing our stories. We just need to be ourselves.