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Writing to Awaken: The Story of Your Life

When your story changes, your life is transformed.

Realizing you are not your story is a quantum leap in self-realization.

I started to write compulsively when I was in the second grade; journals filled with secret thoughts and shameful truths that I could tell no one. Many writers begin this way, turning inward as children to look for answers they can’t find around them. These notebooks were my confessional, the place where I could reveal my true feelings and attempt to make sense of myself and the world.

I always felt better after I wrote. No matter how anxious, confused, or unsettled, my mind was clarified by writing. Like flipping on a light in a darkened room with words to describe what was blocking my way, suddenly, I could see my way forward. Language helped navigate my inner world. I no longer felt helpless, trapped, or muzzled. After, I could reread what I’d written and locate clues about who I was, what I was thinking, and why this person inside me was so drastically different from what others saw.

This difference came as a revelation. The voice pouring out of me onto the page, separating truth from lies, was my fearless and natural self. This self was hidden behind a mask, a fictional story that I called “me.” This mask wasn’t me by a long shot, however. Writing freely, without disguise, the gap between the mask and truth—between story and self—became glaringly obvious. As odd as this disconnect was at first, I realized that it was the gateway to freedom. Through it, a message emerged loud and clear: I am not my story.

This life-changing truth has defined my work as a memoirist, teacher, and spiritual seeker over the course of thirty years. What does it mean to say “I am not my story?” Students ask me this all the time. “Are you saying that what happened to me didn’t happen?” Of course not. “Are you calling me a liar, like I’m making these things up?” Not at all. What I’m acknowledging is the obvious fact that what we believe to be real is not reality, as any psychologist, physicist, or guru will tell you. The mind creates stories out of things that happen and composes a character they happen to. We then take these bogus stories for fact and live as if they are the actual truth.

We do this because we are Homo Narrans, the storytelling ape, the only animal in all of existence that creates a conceptualized self. We invent ourselves at every moment—connecting the dots, developing plot lines, revising scenes, replaying old dramas—by composing a solid narrative with this fictional self at the center. We fully believe that our story is real, which is why when I suggest to students that every life is a work of fiction, they often feel existential confusion. Luckily, it doesn’t last long.

The transformational power of expressive writing practice continues to amaze me after all these years. The radical act of telling the truth awakens us automatically. When we write down our story, we become the witness, and this objective distance brings an "aha!" as the character we believed to be solid reveals itself as a narrative construct. The more truthful we are about our thoughts and feelings, the more this narrative changes and with it our perspective on who we are. The essence of what I've learned is this:

When you tell the truth, your story changes.

When your story changes, your life is transformed.

Why is telling the truth so radical? Because we rarely do it (fully) in everyday life. As socialized animals, we’re taught to hide our feelings, to protect reputations, conventions, and interests. We’re liars of necessity, fear, and convenience. Imagine if everyone told their entire personal truth willy-nilly, regardless of the consequences. What a brutal nightmare that would be! To avoid incrimination and cruelty, we opt instead for versions of the truth, euphemisms, half-lies, and tidied up candor. Though we’re mostly honest, most of the time, civilized life calls for reticence and cooperation breeds compromise.

Then there is the matter of shame. We tolerate such heavy loads of it that revealing the truth can seem menacing as if uncensored honesty would wreak havoc on our carefully manicured lives. Shame tends to keep us dishonest and silent, sitting on our secrets, trapped in the dark. That is why finally telling the truth—in writing, therapy, or a church confessional—has such a catalytic effect. We’re awakened by its unmistakable sound, like the pealing of a bell. Once we’ve rung that bell, it can’t be unrung. We’re called on to live with what we know since the fiction of self no longer traps us.

We understand why we have felt inauthentic—in subtle as well as obvious ways. Wiping away the mask of lies, we reveal our true face in the mirror through writing, often for the first time. The benefits of expressive writing are incalculable. They include psychological empowerment, emotional healing, social intelligence, increased well-being, creative growth, and a spiritual awareness that keeps us rooted in the life we’re living. (Here are some studies: Research has shown that as little as 15 minutes of expressive writing a day can markedly improve physical and mental health.

Expressive writing requires that we do more than simply report the facts of our experience or free-associate on any random subject that comes to mind. The research of psychologist James W. Pennebaker reveals that in order for writing to be transformative, we must include our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and insights about our experience if we hope to reap the benefits. Pennebaker’s studies have shown that when subjects approach writing in this way, the practice can boost the immune system, reduce the need for psychotherapy, lower stress, and even accelerate physical healing.

In my own life, journaling as a young boy led to writing memoirs, and personal storytelling led to teaching others to articulate and step beyond their composed narratives of themselves and what is possible for them. This evolved into a teaching, Writing To Awaken, that's helped more people than I would have dreamed possible. Yesterday, I got a postcard from Paris, sent by a student who was borderline agoraphobic when she signed up for one of my online classes eight months ago. For nine weeks, she explored her thoughts and feelings in writing, twisted stories about why she was a shut-in, secret fears she didn't want to admit, the victim story that was destroying her.

By the end of the class, she seemed more self-aware and now here was her postcard from Rome, telling me that she was still writing and how her life was starting to change slowly. "I'm not as scared anymore," she wrote. "I found a way to look in the mirror."

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