Telling Your Own Story

"If we don't tell our stories, they will be told by people who do not understand them at all."

Teresa Jordan's words resonate with me, both as a writer and as a teacher.  I was very lucky to hear her speak at Women Writing and Living The West, a one-day seminar held in conjunction with the 15th Annual Trailing of The Sheep Festival.  During the first workshop segment, professional writers read from and talked about their work.  No doubt about it, they were good.  But the second set of speakers?  They were ranching women, speaking from the heart, many of them for the first time---and they overshadowed their professional counterparts.  The authors may have inspired us, but the ranching women made us cheer and cry.

I bring this up now for a reason.  We are entering the season of NaNoWriMo or, for the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month.  The program is run by a nonprofit group and has proven itself through twelve full seasons of madness.  They started as a small group of crazy novelists and they've become. . . Well, they've become a very large group of crazy novelists. At the end of last year, NaNoers numbered 200,530. In the Young Writers Program, there were 1,740 participating classrooms and 41,000 novel writers under the age of seventeen.  Every year, the program grows.

The goal, as you may surmise, is to write the rough draft of a novel in November. Through the program, writers get encouragement, support, and structure---and, although donations are thankfully accepted, it costs nothing to participate.

I love this. I love this so much I could jot all the reasons on little pieces of paper and roll around in them.

My reasons have everything to do with who I am and my experience.

I'm a teacher. I'm a writer. I'm a woman with deep roots in a land often misunderstood and misrepresented. I've taught hundreds of college students who do not believe they have any right to use their own voices because they are not the voices they see represented in the mainstream of life.  They are gay. Or their skin is too dark or too light or too blotchy or too scarred.  They talk funny or they don't talk funny enough.  They live in the back woods. Or they haven't lived anywhere long enough to fit in. They've been taught it's not polite to talk about oneself.  They've been taught that creative endeavors are a waste of time. They've been taught to mirror opinions rather than risk failure by speaking their minds. They've been dismissed because they're not from a place others can readily find on a map.  They're afraid.

You know what?  To hell with that.  To hell with anyone who tells others they shouldn't have voices. Words are power.  When we allow someone to take away our voices, we are allowing them to take away our power.

There will be nay-sayers.  As NaNoWriMo grows, there is a growing anti-NaNo contingent who discourage participation.  They say we don't need any more poorly-written books.  They say not everyone should write.  They say real writing should be left to real writers. I'm reminded of Robert Frost's "Two Tramps in Mudtime."  In the poem, our protagonist is chopping his own wood when two tramps come by needing work:

Out of the woods two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps.)
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.

It's true.  If you have little experience owning your voice, you may be called a fool by those with more experience.  Those people have no other way to understand what you are doing other than the way you handle an ax (or in this case, grammar or sentence structure or imagery).  In this time of flux in the publishing industry, there are plenty who argue that the flood of self-published works by amateur writers has become a threat to the livelihood of "real writers."

In August, The Atlantic ran an article by Peter Osnos, entitled, "Are There Too Many Books?" Osnos responds to Bill Keller, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and author of an article entitled, "Let's Ban Books, Or At Least Stop Writing Them."  Keller laments the number of his reporting staff asking for leaves of absence to write these things and Osnos agrees weakly, placing blame on publishers who need to use better judgement with their selections. He then goes on to say that the real problem lies with self-publishing.  His analysis:  "the quality of the few tends to be overwhelmed by the dross of many."

Wow.  Dross.

Here's where I differ:  I think audiences are smart. I don't personally know anyone who has stopped reading because "OMG I JUST CAN'T DECIDE! I'M SO OVERWHELMED!"

I would boldly suggest that the "dross of the many" contains voices of real people, including many who have been shouted down their whole lives.  I would even more-boldly suggest that the experience of writing and claiming voice is worth whatever discomfort someone writing for The Atlantic or The New York Times may feel. I lay claim to this territory not as a self-published author, but as a teacher and a writer and a woman with deep roots in a land often misunderstood and misrepresented.  We have stories to tell and it's time they're told.

National Novel Writing Month is a great place to start.


  1. This quote rings true to me as it does the first time you shared it:

    “If we don’t tell our stories, they will be told by people who do not understand them at all.”

    All hail NaNo and most of all, all hail all voices! I so loved your paragraph of all the "reasons" students don't write, why they don't think they have a right to their own voices. I nodded several times, recognizing my own excuses from younger years. Thank heavens for teachers like you, Johanna. NaNoWriMo is such a wonderful bundle of lessons for speaking out in general and for writing in specific ways.

    Let's all tell our stories. Thanks for this, Johanna.

    Take care,

  2. Thanks, JC. Those words keep filtering through me. The thing I love about publishing today is that we have room for so many voices. Some of those writers will go on to polish their craft and pursue a career, but many will not.

    I recently found a treasure in a used book store. It's a book entitled, Thirty Years Of Confusion: Autobiography of An Unwanted Boy by Donald Anderson. It was self-published in 1983 and it recounts memories of a man born on an Idaho homestead during the first World War. It is a very well-written book and yet the author closes with this: "As I had mentioned in the beginning, I am not a writer and have no desire to be one. Since I could not fit the parts of the story with a micrometer and put it together with bolts or by welding, I make no guarantee."

    I can't put it down.

  3. Great piece, Johanna. So often, judgmental people harm others by their "my way or the highway" attitude. Here's to courage.

  4. what a great rally for NaNo month. Thanks Johanna.

  5. Thanks, Meredith. Even when I don't participate, I benefit from the immense writing energy of NaNo.

  6. Johanna, as one who does not participate and has strong feelings about the camp who continue to be ... let me use the word I beg to shout ... snobs! Any activity which can provide a venue for even one writer to find their voice, to realise their dream and learn is a valid endeavor. No, I do not participate, yes I believe that many naive writers rush to self-publish, but no one should negate the opportunity to find that magic moment. The magic is knowing that for whatever reasons the disinfranchised should be silenced, it has never and will never work. Drat to those who feel there are too many, readers in the end are a great deal smarter (evidenced by the success of books not published by the Big 6) ... readers will always find a good book.

    I worked for almost 20 years in a neighborhood that most of NYC believed was crime ridden, over populated with "those" types of kids ... and the kids we worked with often believed what newspapers and others said. Kids who spent their entire life and never took the subway to mid-town, kids who never went farther than the "hood" ... who were intimidated that only blocks from where they were born the white, middle class of this world would never accept them. So you see, even those who live in a "famous" city, also suffer as yours in a place no one might know. Kids from Harlem or Bedford Styvesant, kids from the wrong side of Washington Heights (my kids) who thought because they talked funny or their clothes were wrong ... those kids needed to have a voice and our programs gave that to them. Kids who were programmed to fail who became doctors, teachers, performers on the Broadway stage, graphic artists and three to date ... writers.

    Me, a kid from the wrong side of a famous park in Brooklyn, blue collar, talked funny, me who was never expected to be much of anything, I got the chance to reach back and carry other kids along with me. You continue to do the same :)

    No, I don't participate and yes, I still believe some rush to self-publish a great first draft that needed time and love ... but the ideas you present are valid. Even though you didn't know it, you are one of us.

  7. I love the quote. It's so important to get things down on paper (computer screen.) If we don't leave our stories for at least our kids and grandkids how will they ever know who we really are?

  8. A great piece.--and how true-“If we don’t tell our stories, they will be told by people who do not understand them at all.” That is why I bought my 74 year old husband a laptop 4 years ago, installed a voice recognition program, gave him a set of head phones and told him I wanted him to write his life story. At first he balked at the idea but once he got into it he enjoyed it--even though the computer still drives him nuts. But this generation of people have no idea what life was like in those days. I wanted him to record it for his children and grandchildren, but now he is looking for a publisher to put it out to the public. And as you pointed out, there are so many people who live lives that many in society discount, and they are often judged for what they are perceived to be, without any body knowing WHO they are and they don't feel they can speak out.

    I would love to read "Thirty Years Of Confusion: Autobiography of An Unwanted Boy" by Donald Anderson.

    Tha NaNo project sounds wonderful! Right on.

    PS--I am a woman of the land too--farmers, ranchers, loggers.

  9. I've wanted to be a writer since I was in grade school, but life beat me down. I was constantly trying to find a place to fit into a world that didn't seem to want or need me. I couldn't bring myself to write because I felt worthless.

    If it weren't for #amwriting and NaNoWriMo I might never have picked up the pen again and my life would have been much poorer for it. Just because some people are a little overzealous and try to publish a first draft doesn't mean that nobody should do NaNo, it means that people just need to learn that there is more to being a writer than churning out a huge block of text.

    I still haven't really found my voice as a writer yet, but thanks to NaNo I'm taking the time to look for it. And THAT'S why NaNo is important.

  10. Excellent points! You are so right with your comparisons between what I see in the rural West and what you're seeing there in New York. Finding our individual voices is so important.

  11. So true, Peggy. I have stories written by family members who lived generations ago. They aren't perfectly polished, but I am so very thankful to have them.

  12. Another excellent post. It is such an exciting time in which to tell without being blocked by artificial gatekeepers.

  13. I read a book that was done during a NANO and it didn't need much editing. So, it can be done. Loved your blog, Johanna.

  14. Johanna - this blog really touched my heart. I see those same men and women in my classes. It's crushing to hear their stories - to know at some point in time a teacher, parent or would-be-friend said something to wound these wonderful people so deeply they stopped seeing the truth about themselves. Excellent, Johanna, truly excellent - and, I think you're a marvelous teacher. I've learned a great deal from our acquaintance.

  15. Only we can tell our stories in our voice. Thank you for your insightful blog.

  16. Best of luck to all you NaNoWriMo participants.

  17. Thank you so much for this reply, Gloria. Your note alone makes this post worth writing. It's so nice to meet another woman of the land.

  18. I'm so happy you're writing, Robert! Your dedication to the craft is so clear in everything you say. I've always considered you a professional writer because you have steady, consistent writing habits. For me, that says more than books sold or publisher names. You're doing the work.

  19. Yes--and such a great time for writers to establish their voices while getting feedback from peers. It really is an exciting time.

  20. Great point, Mary! It can be done. :)

  21. And I've learned a great deal from knowing you! Thanks, Liz.

  22. Yes! Good luck to all. Thanks, Carley.

  23. I adore you. Really.

    And at the risk of looking like I'm advertising myself here (honestly not my intent!), I feel compelled to share this with you, because it's relevant to the discussion of who "should be allowed" to write or to call herself/himself a writer::

    And tangentially--I've always loved the idea of NaNoWriMo, and in the past, I've sort of longed to participate...but I finally had to face the fact that (at least for now) I have absolutely zero interest in writing a novel. It's more of a bummer than you might expect! Like longing to go to the ball to be with all the rest of the cool kids, but having to admit that you really dislike dancing and ball gowns and punch and glass slippers. And crowds. :-)

  24. this is good. I like this.. I had a lot more, but it pissed me off telling me my email address was invalid(it's not)

    Yes! there are plenty of stories that need telling.

  25. Gah! I'm sorry for the email weirdness. Seems like there have been a lot of ghosts in the machines lately. Electronics are going haywire all around me.

    I'm so glad you're telling your stories.


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