Writing and the Safety to Heal: How do you know when a story matters?

May 7, 2012


It was a tiny room with historic wooden floors, a single bed, and summer ants that would eat holes in the crotches of my underwear. I pilfered food that wouldn’t be recognized as missing off the shelves of my landlord, and at work, stole quarters from the prospective-client-parking box to buy gas station egg salad sandwiches at lunch. I did this every day till I noticed I’d lost months of memory focusing solely on the next meal, and then the next.

On the phone with my dad, I reined in tears while he romanticized poverty, saying this life is a choice I made, and praising the fact that every successful writer has “eaten bark” to get by, eventually, refusing my just-in-case request to come home for a while if it was confirmed that, in fact, I was losing my mind.

Mirror, plate glass window, each one I walk by, I double-take at the reflection of my mother before realizing it’s me. This is me. Is this the way it’s going to be till the end? If the physical gene is this strong, surely the emotional one has some horsepower, too, and if that’s true, what will I, daughter of a mother who bolted when her kids were toddlers, face as womanhood takes hold? She is no longer nibbling at the edges of me. She’s inside.


I live under the roof of the most creatively suited mentor I could have imagined, help instigate a writers group dreams are made of, and make community with writers whose eventual films and plays call to mind the times spent creating those pieces in our living room readings. I fall in love with two kids and a dog. Family.

I’m writing an electric story. It’s characters are taking over and I long ago forgot the time.  When, suddenly, I stop. It stops. The flow of the thing. The words, the characters, the picture I’m describing freezes like a Polaroid in its frame, nostalgia-tinted. I scratch at its surface trying to get back in. But it’s an inanimate thing, and I am locked out. Each day I return, I jangle keys outside it, doorless, frozen in time. Inaccessible. I slink away. But visit often. Visit all of the stories often. Pace the tiny room. Fuzz my vision at a golden afternoon edging windows, floor. Angry as the light wanes. Another day stunted into snapshot. Why do *I* have to heal before I can write? and then I wonder where that thought came from? Heal what? It’s just writing. Anyone can write. Especially writers. Paw again at the Polaroid. Notice the dust between bare feet and the floor. Let go the picture and find the broom.


How do you know when a story matters?
You know when you don’t want to tell it.
Or when it makes you feel short of breath, or feel anything at all.
You know when time disappears while you’re telling it.
And when your audience is tearing up without noticing. When they’re silenced in wait of what’s next.
You know it matters when you have to be cajoled to tell it.
When people ask to hear it again.
When listeners and readers ask questions, and read the next one.
And when it heals.

Stories matter when they’re true. True to struggle, to human nature, true to experience.

You don’t have to tell on yourself. You don’t have to share your story if it’s too scary to reveal.
But consider this next suggestion: Tell yourself. Even if you don’t let others see it, write your stories that matter.
Let yourself feel the memory: Stark joy. Shocking fate. Painful mediocrity.
Notice the feeling of it, then write into it. What hurt? What stuck? What’s hardest to say out loud?
Say it. Let it out. Then watch it shimmer.
It has a life of its own, that experience, and its own little piece of soul—yours, shimmering in it, that you’ll never get back if you don’t first let the story out.
Stories lose luster without that piece of soul. Just words without it.
So listen. Feel. Find what catches, what makes you want to hide.
And write it. You’ll find the soul. And in finding it, repair.


I’m writing memories for a while, in exploration. Staring out the window in the mornings, letting them fall out of lit corners and dark folds, rustling leaves, blunt sunshine of spring. Join me if you please. Write yours in the comments, or link to your blog. Explore with me.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Write the Block
May 9, 2012 at 10:54 am
Making Love in the Moonlight « Facets of Joy
May 24, 2012 at 11:36 am

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

regina May 7, 2012 at 7:22 pm

You (or, perhaps it is your writing– are the different?) take my breath away.


Pema Teeter May 8, 2012 at 10:54 am



Joy May 7, 2012 at 7:58 pm

What a beautiful exploration! I Feel beyond the words…and yes, my own memories surface…memories I had held back because they are stories of daring adventure, creating from passion, breathing in wind and thriving. I used to have this habit of leaving the past in that moment, now I know to integrate it and honor it as I continue to move forward. Your willigness to share transparently is inspiring and encouraging. Thank you seems so simple, perhaps it is simply *enough*: thank *you*.


Pema Teeter May 8, 2012 at 10:57 am

You’re welcome! Yes! All those memories are alive. Deep thanks for reading, and riding along with your memories as they pop open.


Nicole May 7, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Absolutely raw/stark and vastly expansive at the same time, Pema. I agree with Regina that your writing, where you are feel different…almost a gnawing. And, as Joy has expressed, it touches that gnawing that we all feel to realize our stories and remember to tell them. They are what we are, have become and will continue to guide us. And you the host, the charmer, unravel yours to tell ours. Really beautiful.


Pema Teeter May 8, 2012 at 10:58 am

Thanks, Nicole. So many stories to live and tell, no? Big and small. xxoo


Michelle May 7, 2012 at 9:39 pm

I’m touched, I’m moved, I remember & I wake up… all because of the power of words. Words that reveal the beauty, the soul, the writer who draws me closer and closer to her and to myself. Thank you, Pema

You’re a gift. I’m grateful you came across my path on this journey of life.


Pema Teeter May 8, 2012 at 10:59 am

Gorgeous. So pleased that as you get closer to mine you get closer to yours. Much love.


Sandra de Helen May 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Pema, your description of being locked out of one’s own story is heart-breaking — and devastatingly familiar. You are a beacon of light on this journey. Thank you.


Dave May 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Opposite and at the same time not so different from Regina’s comment, you and your writing are breath-giving.

Nabestradamus Maximus, the 3rd


Floyd May 9, 2012 at 11:12 am

Love, Love Love this <3


Dianne Juhl May 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm

I’m joining you in feeling, re-entering the ecosystem of memories, and telling the story. There’s this one story that has been writing me for years and now I’m telling one piece of it. The one that speaks of mother and daughter and womanline. It’s revealing and healing. The story is perfectly imperfect, and whatever is in words this week is what will be gifted to my mom and published for Mother’s Day.


Pema Teeter May 24, 2012 at 4:03 pm

I hope you’ll share the link to your story when you publish it. We’d love to read it.


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