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We Write to Remember We Are Not Alone
What I've Learned This Week
A writer writes in some quiet place, all by himself, to be reminded that he is far from isolated. He is not operating in some epic struggle against the world—he writes to remember that he is part of it. Or at least I do. And I don’t think I’m the only one.
This week, over and over, I’ve been reminded of my own lack of self-sufficiency. From the gentle presence of my wife working in the background of our home, to the thoughtful words of a friend, to the recent support of new readers, it’s clear to me that John Donne was right: No man is an island.
Or at least, I do.
Certainly, there are plenty of ways to come to such a realization, but in my experience writing is the best way. Jotting down experiences and thoughts can force a person to step ever so slightly out of their self-inflicted cave of isolation, pointing a person back to a world that is, yes, occasionally cruel and unkind but also inexplicably beautiful.
It is easy, I think, for a person to believe they are all alone in this world, and that is especially true for creatives. We are tempted to believe the oft-cited cliches of hustle culture. That there’s no such thing as a free lunch; nothing ever comes easy; and if you want anything in life, you’re going to have to earn it—and so on.
But these truisms are not always true. We are all part of a complex system called life, recipients of the work of previous generations, standing on the shoulders of giants. Certain platitudes may be useful motivators at times, but it is just as important to remember that we don’t have to do it all on our own. There is help available, a whole host of witnesses ready to cheer us on each and every moment.
And when we don’t remember this, or rather when we choose to ignore it, we invite chaos. Put another way, in the much more elegant words of Mother Teresa:
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
Why We Must Remember How We Got Here
I don’t have to explain this to you. You can see it everywhere: from the water that flows into your home through pipes you can not see into a glass you drink from every day to the sacrifices friends and family have made to help you get to where you are now. We are not the masters of our own fate. Not entirely.
I’m not saying life isn’t filled with its fair share of “shit sandwiches,” nasty realities we all have to grapple with. All I’m saying is we need to remember how much a part of everything we truly are and that how we look at life tends to affect our experience of it.
Part of the narrative that has directed much of my life for the past forty years is: “I am all on my own.” It’s up to me. No one is going to rescue me. I’ll have to figure it out for myself. Call it a byproduct of being the firstborn or some unresolved trauma from childhood (probably both). But for better or worse, this belief in my own self-sufficiency has formed the basis of much of my life. To be sure, it has helped me accomplish impressive feats, but it has also made me insecure and untrusting of others. Saddest of all, it has cut me off from the generosity of fellow humans.
Some stories are true, and some are false. But some stories become true only when you believe them. They may be factually inaccurate but once powered by the fuel of belief, they can direct a person’s life in surprisingly powerful ways. When you believe no one will help you, for example, you tend to withdraw from others, creating a self-fulling pattern that continues to feed you the events you need to justify your belief.
Many stories are like that. Something stressful happens, and we tell ourselves “this is the way life is,” then look for the proof to verify our claim. After a series of even minor events, one negative thing after another, a life can spiral out of control pretty quickly. If you don’t pick up your head once in a while to see what’s actually happening, you can easily get wrapped up in a narrative that is not entirely accurate but influencing your life, nonetheless.
Now, you are living from a story instead of reality. And the only way to interrupt such a pattern is to tell yourself a new story.
Your Life’s Story: Tragedy or Comedy?
One of my favorite stories from Ray Edward's’ book Read This Or Die is an exercise he learned from a personal development teacher that goes something like this:
Write out all the details of your life as if you were telling a tragic story. Make it Shakespearean in substance, emphasizing all the terrible parts as much as possible. Remember when your mom said this, when your dad did that, when your closest friend betrayed you? How could they! Make yourself the victim, using all the material you have, making nothing up, but allowing it to be as dramatic as possible.
Then, retell the story as if it were a comedy. Use the same events, the same details and melodramas you used before, but make these the obstacles you needed to get to where you are now. Make yourself Rocky or Rambo; imagine yourself as Dorothy or Katniss—whatever hero you identify with. But no matter what, make sure this is a story with a happy ending.
Then ask yourself the question, “Which story is true?”
Of course, in a sense, they’re both true. But the one you believe more has the greater impact on what you do next. As Ray so eloquently concluded about his own struggle against Parkinson’s Disease and how he had to reframe such a terrible diagnosis for his own thriving:
The story of your life is not your life. It is just a story.
This is something many of us can relate to, this pattern of remembering and reconsidering the events of our lives. Everything is contextual, especially the story of our life and what it means. Have you ever, for example, noticed that when you are in a particularly bad mood that it takes a lot of energy to convince you today could be good? Similarly, when you are in a very good mood, have you seen how everything just feels lighter and easier? It takes a lot to convince a person life is awful when they are in love; and it’s almost impossible to believe things will get better when someone is heartbroken.
How we feel at any given moment affects the life we are living right now.
How a Bad Day Gets Good
This is not theory or abstraction. It can all happen moment by moment and often does. For me, yesterday was a day that went from pretty good to kind of bad to great by bedtime, and it all happened within a matter of hours.
Here’s how it went down:
First, a client didn’t pay me on time.
Then, my bookkeeper reminded me of a few pending bills due at the end of the month. If I didn’t get this money, she warned, I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills (or myself).
Then, I started to worry. There were deadlines and client expectations and children who like to eat on a daily basis. It all started to add up in my mind, creating a big ball of “what if?”
Somewhat frantic, I walked into our bedroom, pacing back and forth with no real purpose, and my wife asked while she ironed some clothes, “How are you?”
“Worried,” I said.
“About…” she started, and before I could answer, filled in the blank: “…money?”
She knows me well, knows my patterns and routines as well as the underlying belief systems that direct my life. Graciously, she let me spin out a little, offering a gentle presence from afar, knowing this is a thing I do more often than I’d like.
Unable to contain the energy, I went for a walk and texted a friend, then had a call with a client. That afternoon, I met virtually with a group of writers my friend Chad had been coaching and answered some of their questions about being an author. Many of these individuals, after hearing me speak, signed up for my newsletter and pledged financial support. It was a kind and unexpected gesture, something I didn’t ask for, the sort of generous display that pulls a self-centered person out of their own spiral of despair, helping a person see a little more clearly. It helped me pull my head out of my ass.
That evening, we had dinner with a friend and his wife—a former client whose book on creativity is a refreshing take on a somewhat tired subject. We talked about a lot of things, including how proud he was of the book, how well it was doing, and how grateful he was for our work together. He told me about something I’d written a while back and how it influenced a season of his family’s life. I didn’t even remember writing it. But I nodded along and smiled.
Message received. Things were going to be fine. To remember this, I started writing.
Why I Write
All writing, when done from an honest place is a reminder of our belonging in the world. This is true of a blog post, a handwritten letter, and certainly a book. When we share something that matters to us, we are beginning a conversation, which is a tremendous act of faith. We are trusting another human being to “get it,” staking a claim on the human race itself, hoping the recipient of our words can handle the conversation and respond accordingly
And in my experience, more often than not, it is a bet worth placing.
Such writing is a gift to the reader. When we read about someone else’s ideas and experiences, their questions and doubts, we sometimes find ourselves nodding along in surprise, saying to ourselves: “You too?” This kind of relief can feel like rescue to the weary soul who’s looking for a place to belong.
I’ve been on both sides of the equation, as reader and author, and believe deeply in the power of this exchange. It is something deeply spiritual; and when done right, it can be as sacred an exercise as holy communion.
We write to remind ourselves and others that life is not a solitary effort. We are not, in the poetic words of David Whyte, “a troubled guest on this earth.” We belong to each other, and our exchange of language can help us see this truth more clearly.
Choosing to write anything is an act of opening ourselves to the world. It is one of the most vulnerable things we can ever do. It is courageous and generous. We tell our stories not just for ourselves but for those who cannot. We speak when others remain silent to remind them that they, too, have a voice. And when it’s our turn to listen, we quiet down, because everyone has a perspective worthy of acknowledgment.
Writing is a game of attention. It helps us practice the ancient art of presence that philosophers and theologians have been trying to decode for centuries. We share what we think and know to communicate with others as well as with ourselves, to tap into that truer self we often forget we are. To create is to connect: with a work that transcends daily drama; with a community of other wandering pilgrims; with a piece of ourselves that can never be exhausted.
A Long-Overdue “Thank You”
And on that note, if you are new here, thank you for joining! If you are not new, thank you, too. Your attention means more than you know. It’s great to have you. I am grateful for your support and interest. It does not go unnoticed.
As a small token of my appreciation, next week I am offering a live class on writing and living in which I’ll share the basics of what it takes to write a good book and how that parallels with living a good life.
The date and time is Thursday, July 27, 3:00–4:30 p.m. CT (mark your cal, and I’ll share more details early next week). The whole thing will last about ninety minutes and includes Q&A as well as a chance to offer insights on what we can do to make this community stronger.
It is my way of thanking the many readers who have generously pledged their support of this work. And I want to honor their (that is, your) commitment, sacrifice, and attention. This is an event that is only available to paid subscribers at any level, so if you haven’t pledged your support, please do so as you are able.
This will also be an opportunity for subscribers to offer thoughts on how we can improve this community together. Think of it as one part teaching, one part “here’s what’s new,” and one part town hall meeting. All details for the event will be sent out on Monday for paid subs, but if you aren’t yet ready for that, that’s okay. I’m happy to have you here, regardless. Whether a subscriber or not, I’d love to hear from you:
When was there a time in your life that you realized you weren’t as alone as you thought? Has creativity ever helped you remember this lesson?
Leave a comment below.