By Amy Sutherland.
With each of us, there is a story. A life lived, a mistake made, a lesson learned, a love lost. There are personal struggles and profound successes that are unique to each of us, but in the sharing of those individual experiences, we find community. As an author of many personal essays, I regularly encourage others to share their own stories. Unfortunately, not every one feels confident in their ability to articulate their life in a narrative way. And here, I feel, is where writers can help.
I have a neighbor named Earl. He is in his early 80s and he and his wife Judy love to host my husband and me for cocktails on the patio. As we sip Moscow Mule’s, Gin and Tonics, or hand muddled Mojito’s, we talk. We don’t talk about politics or religion, we don’t talk about the weather, we talk about our lives. We talk about our relationships, our families, and our histories. We take interest in each other and bond, in a refreshingly personal way, in our ever-growing impersonal world.
This past summer, after spending several warm afternoons out on the patio listening to the stories of my neighbor Earl, I mentioned that I was a writer. He didn’t say much about it but his eyes lit up. A few days later, Earl approached me and asked if I would help him write his life’s story. Without hesitation, I, of course, said yes.
For a few hours every month, I sit down with Earl. We gather around a digital recorder and talk. I ask him pointed questions, he tells me about his life. He talks to me about growing up in Louisiana, he tells me about his family, his schooling, romantic relationships, his children, and his experiences as a black man in the deep south. But most enthusiastically, he likes to talk about his career as a musician. I listen in awe as he details gigs in dark jazz clubs and his constant brushes with celebrities like Hank Williams, Ike and Tina Turner, Sam Cooke, and even Prince. Earl becomes so lost in his memories that it is hard to keep him focused, but I love watching him travel through time and will always feel honored to have been allowed to bear witness.
I have no doubt that Earl has experienced deep, dark pain in his life, but his naturally sunny disposition pushes him to retell his story through a predictably positive lens. With each passing session he grows more comfortable sharing bits of those dark memories with me but it has been a challenge to get him to stay in those moments. Trying to convince someone that their pain is relevant to their story is a lot harder than you would think, especially if he is worried about who might read it when we’re finished. As any writer knows, self-censoring can mean the difference between a story with depth or an entire lack thereof. I haven’t yet figured out a way to explain this to him.
But for now, I look forward to my meetings with Earl and for my chance to get to know him on such a personal level. Learning from someone else’s story helps me make sense of my own. Listening to someone else’s perspective helps me see the world with more clarity. Sharing the type of intimacy that is exchanged in the detailed retelling of past experiences helps me feel the depth of our world. And synthesizing the randomness of someone else’s existence helps make me a better writer. If you, too are a writer looking to develop new skills, take some time this holiday season to chat with your friends and family and maybe help them write their stories too.
Amy Sutherland lives in Minnesota and is currently penning her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter @perfectmetaphor