Getting it Right

Revising our stories opens us to transformation

The stories keep surfacing.

There’s the story Alias Grace that I just finished streaming on Netflix. It’s the second Margaret Atwood novel to be serialized for TV. Whereas A Handmaid’s Tale presented a dystopian world in which women are used as breeding machines, Alias Grace goes back in time. The story is set in Canada in the mid-1800s. A young servant girl, Grace, has been sentenced to death for the murder of her master and his housekeeper.

As she recounts her life and the circumstances that led up to the crimes to a Dr. Jordan, we begin to see how Grace has been preyed upon throughout her life, from her own father to previous employers and the doctors who “treat” her at the insane asylum. Even Dr. Jordan fantasizes about her in ways that threaten to cloud his judgment. I couldn’t watch this without thinking of the many women who daily are coming forward to share their stories of being victimized.

Then there’s the story that runs throughout Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new collection of essays, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. He wrote one essay for each year of Obama’s presidency, but they tell the same sad truth. American democracy was built on slavery, and slavery is at the root of our country’s ills. In his piece on reparations, Coates writes:

“We may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and this is perhaps what scares us . . . What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.” (201-202)

So it struck me last night as I sat in a room of about 150 people to celebrate the launch of a teacher and friend’s book, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice. Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew shared how she came to understand revising not as an onerous task but a freeing process that opens her heart to a new way of seeing.

Her insight was just what I needed as I return, once again, to my own story. I thought I was done with it, but have learned this past month that it is not done with me. The story is still asking something from me, and now I must discover what that is. No less than a personal reckoning, revision will, thanks to the wisdom of Elizabeth and Coates and others, help me listen more deeply and be open to transformation.

Stories serve many purposes, but fundamentally, they define us. They tell us who and whose we are. They recall how and why our ancestors came to America. They contain the joy of the day we were born. They remind us of how we met our partner or dear friend and where we were on 9/11. They reflect moments of courage and fear.

It’s not always easy to get the story right. But get it right we must if we ever hope for renewal.

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