The Power of Personal Narrative

The Power of Personal Narrative

Telling your story can yield important discoveries

Singer-songwriter and mom Emm Gryner recently posted on Twitter a photo of a crumpled piece of paper.

Scrawled on the paper were notes about her then-newborn’s waking and sleeping. Most of us probably kept notes like this at one time, worrying over our children’s sleep or feeding. Seeing Gryner’s note pop up on my computer screen brought back a flood of my own memories (mostly of sleepless nights). It also reminded me of the importance of writing things down.

Like many new moms, I was given a baby book at my son’s birth. I’m ashamed to say I don’t write in it as often as I should. Without the baby book, I would still be able to recall my son’s first word and other such momentous occasions—but would I remember the little things, like how long he refused to wear pants (for months!) and that he used to love giraffes?

Writing teaches you that the little things, the small moments, often matter just as much as the big. Small moments, accumulated, make a life. And so I read and reread the classic Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder—themselves a unique brand of loosely fictionalized memories of Wilder’s childhood—more than a little for Wilder’s descriptions of food: salt pork, homemade bread, and the fried cornmeal pancakes called johnnycakes. It’s hard to get more ordinary than dinner. But Wilder’s memories of the ordinary, the everyday, become extraordinary when viewed through the lens of time.

Writing is a valuable tool not only for documenting our children’s lives but also for recording and making sense of our own. How do I know what I think unless I write? is something I often ask myself. One of my friends gave me the great suggestion to use a journal as a tool for problem solving and decision making. When she’s struggling with a problem, she poses it to herself as a question and writes about it, freehand in a notebook, for about 30 minutes.

She free writes, which means she writes without stopping herself, without worrying about spelling or grammar or even if she’s making much sense. She just writes. At the end of 30 minutes, she often finds she’s arrived at an answer. Writing, in this sense, is a way to think, a way to organize thoughts and impressions. Free writing is a great exercise, to write without judgment or worry or cessation—just to get something down.

How do I remember it without writing it? is another question I wonder about. We often use journals to record and express emotions, to vent what we’re feeling, or to puzzle through a problem, as my friend suggested. But it’s just as important to record the everyday, like Wilder does; like Virginia Woolf does in so many of her powerful and vivid essays, such as “The Death of the Moth,” which minutely details an insect’s struggle in a window; and like we used to do in our children’s baby books. I love Louisa May Alcott’s Work: A Story of Experience, which, like Wilder’s books, is an “autobiographical novel” because of the detailed world she constructs. It’s not a book with an exciting plot, really, just the story of a young woman attempting to find meaningful work; but because it takes place before and after the Civil War, the details are charged with meaning and history.

Are you fortunate enough to have journals from your mother or grandmother? Or even the small information gleaned from the writing on the back of family photographs or old postcards or recipes? Think how much knowing about the lives of the women in your family means to you. Think how much it would mean to your children to know your story. Or to you, as a senior citizen one day, looking back on your life.

Writing your life, writing a memoir, is not therapy. Writing should not take the place of therapy, and publishable writing needs to be more than just an outlet; but starting to tell your own story can help you make sense of it. It can help you remember, and it can help you know that what you live is important, even the small details of making a life count. As Solo Moms, our daily struggle matters—in part because maybe one day we’ll look back and see how far we’ve come and realize now we aren’t struggling at all.

Recommended memoirs by women:

  • The Road from Coorain (Vintage Books, 1990) by Jill Ker Conway
  • The Days Are Gods (Bison Books, 2013) by Liz Stephens
  • The Story of My Life (Dover Publications, 1996) by Helen Keller
  • Rat Girl (Penguin Books, 2010) by Kristin Hersh
  • Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Mariner Books, 2007) by Alison Bechdel

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Alison Stine is the author of the young-adult novel Supervision, three books of poetry, and numerous essays. A Solo Mom, she lives with her son in the foothills of Appalachia. You can follow her on Twitter at @AlisonStine.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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