True Words

Making unexpected discoveries through the writing process can help us live more authentic lives.

By Maria Sirois

On my right, three rows back and seven chairs over, a woman began to sob heavily. Usually, sobbing doesn’t happen in my class on authenticity. My classes on recovering from illness, living with dying, happiness after loss—these are guaranteed sob fests for at least one or two attendees. The authenticity workshop—not so much. After a few moments, her tears were so intense that she began having a hard time breathing. I stopped the class, turned to her, and asked how we could help. She stated that she was there on the eve of her 62nd birthday and she had just had an epiphany. I leaned forward. The whole class leaned forward. Who doesn’t like hearing about an epiphany?

“I’ve known for years that I am standing on the wings of the theatre, waiting for people on stage to call my name, but they never call my name because it’s not my play.”

The breathing in the room halted. She waved her hand in front of her face, to signal to us that she wasn’t done, she just needed more space to cry. We waited. She cried. We started to fidget. She cried a bit more, then sat up.

“It’s just occurred to me that on the other side of town there is a play waiting to go on, but it can’t go on because it’s my play and I’m not there.”

Now we were all crying.

Authenticity is not a place, a fixed station, or certain standing in life. It is a journey toward greater understanding of what we love and don’t, removing false pretense, and a more integrated identity. Through this expedition, who we are at 26 years-old may not look much like who we become at 56. Yet, this brave woman on the edge of another year had named something we could all see. Somewhere, there is a play that is our play. Somewhere there is a life that is our life, at least more our life than anyone else’s.

This life is shaped by who we are at our core, our values, and what we have witnessed and experienced directly in life. It is crafted, too, by our experiments—the attempts we make to express that core sense of self through dating, work, choices to try a new city or backpack in Kauai, art, music, dance, poetry, or even tweeting. And, of course, we do this through writing. We do this with our language, characters, and stories as we attempt to name who we believe we are, what we believe to be significant, and, for some, what we wish to heal.

Yet, what I have come to discover is that this is a journey of mutual shaping. Our understandings shape our words, this is true. But it is also true that our words shape our understandings.

Writing is an act of discovery as much as uncovery. As we allow our writing to emerge, we come to know more about the voices within us that await the call from the stage. Our view of “the true self” shifts. A bit of the character of our being becomes crafted anew.

Rilke understood this. In his late 20s, after more than a year of apprenticeship to the sculptor Rodin, Rilke came to believe that each work of art is a definitive utterance of particularity shaped by our unique perspective and lived life. He wrote:

“After all, works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity.”

We are being shaped both by the forces that have pressed their weight upon us as well as by our singular understanding of those forces. Our writing will reflect this shaping. This is uncovery—we uncover what has happened—and also discovery, as we see how we make meaning of what has happened. Something is both shared and revealed, to the reader and to ourselves.

I learned this in the first moment of the first writing class I ever took. Asked to pick an object in the room and describe it in detail, I wrote this line: “Jake was five, a huge five, the kind of kid a dad might proudly call a bruiser.” From there I sketched two paragraphs about Jake, a child I had helped navigate cancer treatment six years prior as the psychology intern at a pediatric cancer center. Everyone else described an object; I brought death into the room. The act of writing uncovered what had been locked in a trunk within my psyche—the discovery was that I could not avoid writing about Jake and the other children over the coming weeks. Each week a prompt was offered and each week, while the other students wrote about a season or a photograph, I could only write about a child facing cancer. I had not known the contortions I had made to shelter these stories, nor the force behind them demanding their expression. For six years they had been a seemingly small piece of my living. On paper, the depth of their shaping of me became evident and undeniable.

Writing, when considered from this perspective, becomes not just a form of expression but a path to the authentic living we seek.

Through writing, we may be more likely to sense the play on the other side of town that is ours. And while I cannot say that discovery through writing can also guarantee us the courage to move to that other stage, I can say that without the unexpected discoveries of our creativity, there is a far less likely chance that we will find our way there.

Maria Sirois is a psychologist, author, and seminar leader who teaches internationally in the intersection of resilience and flourishing. She is the author of A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (And Other Dark, Difficult Times) and Every Day Counts: Lessons in Love, Faith and Resilience from Children Facing Illness. 

Maria Sirois is co-leading a workshop at the Garrison Institute with Mark Matousek, “Writing For Resilience: The Life Saving Power of Changing Your Story,” on April 12-14, 2019. Click here to learn more and register.

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