What’s Your Story?

Finding the narrative that runs through your life

My first writing teacher was Marion Dane Bauer. After taking a class from her through The Loft Literary Center, I joined a workshop that met twice a month in her home. Here our small group took turns reading from our works-in-progress and getting feedback. Besides writing On My Honor, a Newbery Honor Book, and other works of fiction, she wrote What’s Your Story?, a practical guide for young writers who want to attempt fiction.

This past November, I spent three days in Chicago with my siblings. We live in different states and rarely have a chance to be altogether. What better place to have a reunion, we decided, than our home town. And what better activity than to go to museums, a practice our parents instilled in us as they stressed the importance of lifelong learning. In my search for things to do, I noticed that The American Writers Museum had opened on Michigan Avenue a year earlier. It was an easy sell as we’re all avid readers. One morning we spent a few hours making our way down a long hallway, reading panels on well over 200 writers. It was a lot of information–too much, we decided, to take in in a single visit.

At the end of the alley, on the back wall, was this quote from James Baldwin:

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Of all I took in that morning, this is the quote that I remember. This is the idea that won’t let me go. It was as if with his serious expression, Baldwin was challenging me to answer the question “What’s my story?” as I work on my memoir. Yet I quickly realized the “larger” and “reverberating” aspects to my individual story. His quote carried universal appeal, if not application. We don’t need to be writers to ask ourselves, “What is my story?” We don’t need to be writers to recognize that there is a fundamental theme or narrative that runs through our lives.

What’s your story?

In all the writing I’ve done—the young adult novels, the poetry, the journaling, this blog, and now the memoir—a single thread runs through it. My story is coming to terms with a sense of unworthiness and learning to accept (read love) myself for who I am.

In the preface of her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama explains how her parents helped her see the value in her story. “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

What’s your story? How does it shape you? How does it limit you? How does it reflect who you really are and how does it perpetuate messages it may be time to delete? How does it shield you from suffering, and how does it ask you to risk everything?

Baldwin’s quote reminds me that answering the question “What’s your story?” is an ongoing process. We run, we fall, we pick ourselves up again and blunder on. It is the very act of living.

3 thoughts on “What’s Your Story?”

  1. Lenore-
    You ask good questions. What story needs to be told and how? I think of the TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie “The Danger of a Single Story.” It made me aware of the stories we imagine about others and how it might impact bias and perception. I also worry about whether my story is worthy of telling. How is it unique? Does it need to be? Why do I come back to some of the same themes again and again. How does new perspective change them?

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    1. I like Adichie’s TED talk too because of how it not only opens us up to other people’s stories (beyond our versions) but also reaffirms the inherent value of each person’s life. Yes, your story is worth telling and is as individual as you are. It’s in the hearing and reading of others’ stories that we recognize our shared humanity.

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  2. Lenore, this is a wonderful quote. So often I’ve heard that as writers we have to find our story and it always felt like such a limiting goal. And for some of us, a difficult goal. But this quote of Baldwin’s suggests a broader view of the one story. By the time the story becomes larger and narrower and more precise and more reverberating, who knows what shape it will take and all the shapes of the past that it will possess. Lots to think about here. Thank you!

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