I think I was born a storyteller. At first, when I was young, I hid in as safe a place as possible and told stories to myself. I imagined saving children from evil monsters, floods, fires, and parents who abandoned them in the forest. As I grew older, I noticed that when I told stories, students stopped what they were doing and calmed down, adults listened attentively. I told world stories that featured brave heroines, murderous queens and incestuous kings.
I discovered that telling stories helped create a kind of community no matter the ages of the listeners and this helped people feel connected to one another and to me. I later realized that what was happening in my life found its way into the stories I was telling. When my son was in the hospital, not knowing if he would live or die, I told Cinderella, focusing on the hardships she suffered, her disbelief in fairy godmothers, her depression—the bleakness of her life. A few weeks later, when my son was out of the hospital, I easily focused on how quickly Cinderella responded to her fairy godmother, the wonderful ways in which her life changed. Both times I told the same story, but how I was feeling personally worked its way into my storytelling.
Stories matter—all stories, whether they’re world tales or personal stories. Stories are how I make sense of the world and help to create the person I am.
I began what I thought would be my sixth novel, but everything I wrote turned out to be stories of my life. Disgusted by my lack of ability to control my imagination, I gave in and wrote what poured out. The more I wrote the more deeply I remembered. As I typed, first person present tense, it felt like I was typing from a theatre in my mind. I could taste, smell, feel, touch, see each happening as if for the first time. Some memories were very painful, full of horror. I kept the chapters short, allowing the energy of each memory to dictate what and how much I wrote.
After I had about 300 pages, I sent the manuscript to my editor who told me, “Nancy, the writing is fine, but I can’t figure out where I am in your life. How old are you? Where are you? Why does this chapter matter? You need to revise it so your writing is chronological.”
Once the chapters were arranged chronologically, I understood the arc of my memoir was about healing from trauma, abuse, and violence, beginning before I was born. Writing opened mental barriers long closed by pain and disbelief. The more I wrote, the more I understood how unknown forces acting on me had resulted in making bad decisions that I knew were bad at the time. Writing released body memories and freed me from the emotional and psychological grasp of lies told by family members. I understood that I was able to use my wounds to help heal the wounds of others.
I sent the new draft to my editor. She asked, “How are you going to end it? Happily ever doesn’t quite do it.” Finding a satisfying ending was agony. I wrote so many ending chapters, that had I been printing out each chapter I discarded, my wastepaper basket would have been overflowing.
I wanted to end the memoir with some sense of how “old age” was proving to be the best time of my life. I wanted the last chapter to be about love and loving. It came to me, there was only one way to end the book—with an experience I had with a very young child in a small Peruvian village. An encounter of love and warmth and total acceptance that still lives in my heart.