the life saving power of story

Be Brave. Write your Story. It has the power to save.

Most of you probably noticed that June was pride month. If you weren’t already aware, the plethora of rainbows on social media probably gave it away. Around the world us gays are got the chance to celebrate being..well….really gay (in the very best way). There were photos of parties and parades, posts and articles of support and visibility and inclusion.

So it wasn’t a shock to see a link like “11 LGBTQ Stories to Celebrate Pride Month” from Off The Shelf. The contents of the list though WAS a bit of a surprise, a lovely one. And an opportunity for a different sort of pride.

One of the books on this list was Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write about Leaving Men for Women, which happens to contain my coming out essay. The hardest and most essential piece of writing I’ve ever released to the world. My first ever in print.

I remember the day I got my author copies in the mail. I tore open the package and opened the cover. I ran my finger down the table of contents and there it was. My name. In print. I'd never seen my name in a book before. Never even imagined such a thing was even possible.

Breath held, I quickly flipped to page 86 and read my own words as if I had not read them a thousand times already trying to make them perfect.

Perfection is not easy to achieve in a story that holds so many jagged edges and broken parts.

My heart was pounding. My body had chills. I felt on top of the world – and also sick to my stomach. Not just because my story was in a book (a REAL LIVE BOOK. with pages and ink and new book smell!) but because *this* story was in a book. This story that had, until then, lived only online and only anonymously.

Back then I was I was Jen, the faceless blogger behind “Awakenings: Navigating the Spaces Between In and Out”. There I poured out the most raw, most visceral and most true stories I had ever written.

Perhaps – because of the safety of anonymity, the most true stories I ever will.

Before then I was what we now call a mommy blogger. Talking childbirth and breastfeeding and gentle discipline and chronicling life in suburbia way back before blogs were even called blogs. It was all very safe and light and entertaining. I even had a little base of loyal readers – but I wasn’t a writer. Never would have dared the audacity of claiming such a thing.

And then came Awakenings.

My entire undoing was chronicled there. The breaking and the becoming. The raw and messy and real. The fear. The confusion. The loss and the ache.

And still – there are parts of the story – the ones where I walked entirely outside of my own integrity, the ones where the shatter cut too deep to bring words to the reality – that remain untold.

When this book came out I had to make the choice. To keep the sanctity of that space where I could say whatever I wanted, or to step fully into owning the story.

It was another choice I didn’t know how to make.

But I remembered how it was, in the early days of my own discovery. How I scoured the internet, searching with everything I had – desperate to find these stories somewhere. Someone who was walking this path. Someone who had survived. Anything to cling to make this feel less impossible.

I had a wonderful husband and two beautiful children. I was a small town preacher’s daughter from the Eastern Canadian Coast. Nobody in the most immediate layers of my close-knit family had even been divorced.

I had no fucking roadmap for this.

I needed to find something that would make me feel less achingly alone. Needed it like I needed air. Someone or something to tell me that I could and would survive.

Back then – I couldn't find it – not the story I so desperately needed. And so I did what those of us driven by story must do.

I began writing it.

And then others – other women on their own dark and desperate nights – began finding me.
More and more of them. From all over the world. They sent emails. Long emails drenched in grasping hope. Letters that left their entire lives and hearts splayed out on the screen in front of me.

Was it worth it?
Would you do it again?
I’m not as brave as you, I can’t leave.
I love her, so much – I can’t live without her.
When I touched her skin – everything changed and I couldn’t go back.
I took off my wedding ring today.
I’m afraid of losing my children.
I’m afraid of losing my family.
I am so very afraid.
I can never forgive myself.
I can’t do this.

They sent message after message. I read their words, held their tears. Knew their desperation. Read those letters again and again until I had some of the memorized.

Yes – even then the words created a circle so that we could save each other.

Some of them – as deep as I was in the dismantling of my own life and in the stickiness of my own chosen grief – I couldn’t even answer. I’m ashamed of that. But how could I provide any sort of viable wisdom when I was making such a royal clusterfuck of it all? Hurting and damaging and bringing my entire life down to the rubble – making that impossible choice that wasn’t ever a choice at all.

Choose my life – and all that I love? Or choose myself?

But you can’t un-know something once you know it. You can’t undo what has been done.

I got caught in a tailspin and when the force finally died down life as I knew it was over. And there I was – standing underneath that big ole' rainbow flag – wondering what the fuck I was supposed to do now.

It’s true. In the end it wasn’t a choice at all. The choice to come out and live true, and the choice to attach my name to these words of truth in that book.

I had to do it for my own integrity – an integrity I would have to scratch and claw my way back to owning over the course of many years, an integrity that came at a high cost and that left me broken before it found me whole.

And I had to do it for the others out there who needed my story more than I needed the comfort of my hiding space.

And so there it was. My name. In a real life book.

I didn't talk much about this book when it came out. I didn't shout from the hills that I was a published author. I didn't tell my family or post more than the merest whisper on social media. I didn’t blog about it or give copies to my friends. I tucked it away as if it hadn’t happened at all. I was aware that this wasn't just my story. And that it hadn't been long since the fallout and the breaking and the collateral damage.

I wasn’t proud of my reluctance to own this in a bigger way – I just didn’t want to cause any more hurt. I couldn't live with myself if I caused any more hurt.

Please, don’t let me cause any more hurt.

Just like the blog – this book brought so many souls to me. Women who had been, like me, desperately searching for a story that made them feel less alone. In the years since I’ve met many of in person. To so many more I've been able to be a hand outstretched in the dark to say “Here I am. This is my story. Tell me yours. You are not alone in this. Not now and not ever again”.

Because here is the thing. Telling our stories matters. Not just the ones that follow the hero’s journey. Not just the stories of happiness and light, of glittering freedom or triumph – though they have their place and should not be forgotten.

It matters most that we tell the real stories. The hard stories. The stories of the dark and desperate nights. Of the demons and the devastation. Of the things done to us and the things we have done. Of our want and our desire. Of our sex and our back-door pathways to whatever or whoever we called savior at the time. Of the trauma stored on our bones, and the things we have broken on our path to saving ourselves.

We must tell stories of our own becoming. On our own terms and in our way and in our own time. With autonomy and sovereignty and yes – choice.

When we tell our stories. We save others. This is not an overstatement, or a metaphor meant to give you all the feels or to power up this essay. This is a truth. I know it not just because stories have saved me.

I know because I still get emails. Emails that say “I stumbled onto your blog on the darkest of nights and I read and read and read and and your words gave me hope and because of this I am still here on this planet”.

Words like that – they are not easy for me to hold. They push against my own struggle with purpose and bigness, with the voices that tell me to not take credit for such a thing. That I’m not that special or important or powerful and neither is my story.

But here’s the thing, if stories have saved me again and again (and they have and they did and they do – more times than I could count) then who am I to push back these truths given to me by others?

Who am I to accept them with anything but the most humble and holy gratitude for the fact that somehow in this wild and miraculous world my story pushed its way out of me and then filtered and twisted and found its way to the very place it was needed the most?

Blessed be. Blessed be. Blessed be.

The messages remind me every time of what I know to be true.

The bravery it takes to tell your story has the power to save lives.

A few weeks ago I posted on Facebook to ask others if they felt the same. I asked:

Tell me – would you say that writing – telling your story – has saved you? Or that your writing has saved others?

The answer, of course, was as I expected. Yes. Again and again and again. Writing has saved. From the inside out and the outside in. Telling your story – pouring it out. Whether in a voice memo or onto a private journal or for the world to see. And then searching relentlessly to find your story out in the world – to connect your lived experience to words written by another. This saves lives. This saves hearts. This saves relationships and voices and experiences.

It is the a seed for empathy, for advocacy and activism and justice. For visibility and inclusion and validation. It is the root of connection. It is a pathway to the hard truths. It is a way to make real what is unreal, to give voice to the voiceless.

There is a space and a place and a need for stories – for YOUR stories.

It is my life’s work – not just to write myself, but to swing wide open the doors and throw off the bars and remove the barriers between you and your story. To counter the messages you’ve absorbed about your life or your experience or your ability to write it. To dismantle everything built up inside of you that separates you from your own innate power. To sit you down in a room full off blazing light and ultimate permission and give you endless pages ready for the translation of your experience into the words only you can write.

The story only you can tell.

And then when it has poured out of you, and the pages are covered and your fingers are ink stained and you have finished, I am here to say –

This here, what you have done….

It is good.
It is holy and hard and true and necessary.

Because your words have the power to save.
To heal.
To collect the scattered pieces.
To knit back to wholeness that which is broken.
To unleash the constraints that hold us to lives that are not longer meant for us.
To illuminate the dark corners and set us free.

These words and these stories can save a life.
Who knows – maybe even your own.

Hell yes, writing has the power to save.

But only if you begin.

In one week – we begin the 2017 UNLEASHED Writer’s Workshop, gathering together in safe space with our words and our truths. Deep diving into prompts, exercises and challenges that will open us to the call of our own ordinary-extraordinary stories. Circling with world renowned writers and poets and artists like Lidia Yuknavitch, Andrea Gibson, Buddy Wakefield, Brian Andreas and Patti Digh – and the creator of Dear John – Candace Walsh.  Artists who will open the doors on their own creative process and all the ways words have saved them. We will step into this space with hearts open and words ready to spill.

And spill they will. And yes – lives will be saved. I believe this with everything I have.

It would be the deepest of honors to circle with you in this sacred space. To join with you in this collective unleashing. To witness that powerful intersection between self and story and world.

Please join us.

Xo.
J.

P.S. No matter what comes my way in the length of my writing career, Dear John will always represent one of my proudest moments. Not just the first moment I saw my name in print in a real life book, but the moment of choice of owning this story publicly, wholly and completely.

Everything began with that.

Thanks to Candace Walsh and Laura Andre for creating this anthology, for the pivotal moment of choice when I made this story public, and for all that has come to be since then.