By Liz Massey, March 2017 Issue.
Those of you who know me well – OK, anyone who knows me at all – know that I’m rarely at a loss for words. Imagine my surprise, then, the first time I sat down to write down some personal-experience essays, in hopes of melding them together into a memoir.
I was 34, had just left my position as managing editor of Echo, moved to the Sedona “suburb” of Cottonwood, and my partner and I were just kicking off what would turn out to be 18 months of (mis)adventures, filled with melodramatic plot twists, positive and negative reversals of fortune, and the kind of wisdom that only comes after getting kicked in the proverbial can a couple of times.
By the time it was over, my partner and I had experienced enough during that year and a half to fill at least one volume of our collective autobiography. And yet, when I sat down at the computer to record what I recognized as significant memoir material, I hit a patch of insurmountable writer’s block. I couldn’t think of anything to write about.
I was wrong, of course. There was plenty to write about, even if I had skipped writing about the details of my juicy then-current situation. I had grown up in a Democratic-leaning family in a heavily Republican county in the Midwest; had a lifelong love affair with creativity; started my writing career at age 14 and had the opportunity to interview everyone from LGBTQ spiritual author Mel White to sexologist Annie Sprinkle; learned to shoot safety videos in an aluminum factory and dangled off a cherry picker 70 feet up to get an “aerial” shot.
The assumption that my life stories weren’t worth collecting was wrong at age 34, and that feels even more true nearly 15 years later. I’ve always been drawn to writing about how ordinary people live their lives. In my early years as a writer, I expressed that interest by writing human interest features and profiles; more recently, that passion has morphed into helping people tell their own stories as a personal historian. What I’ve discovered along the way is that every life, including my own, contains extraordinary moments – ones that are important to us, as well as to those around us.
Collecting and sharing our life stories can be profoundly empowering, especially if we belong to the LGBTQ community. Here are three basic reasons why:
1. First and foremost, understanding our stories helps us to make sense of our lives.
We can experience epiphanies related to how our life has unfolded at any age; also, how we tell key life stories to ourselves or to others often changes over time. Making the effort to record our stories is an important step in this “figuring out” process.
2. Expressing our life stories, even the sad or unpleasant ones, makes us more resilient and better able to cope.
About 20 years ago, Emory University researcher Marshall Duke measured the resiliency skills of children and found that those who could answer the most items on a list of family history questions scored highest. He also discovered that the family storylines that helped kids cope the best were the “oscillating” narratives, the stories that told kids that family members have made it through both bad times and good times, which helped them realize that they can overcome setbacks in their own life, too.
3. The process of personal story-catching can connect us to something larger than ourselves.
This may be the greatest advantage of “owning our story” for LGBTQ people. So many of our community members have been rejected by their families, churches or geographic peers, which can make one feel lost and alone. And we have all lived through historic queer milestones such as the LGBTQ marches on Washington, D.C., the AIDS crisis, the women’s music movement, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the military, the advent of marriage equality and much more. As we retell our life stories, including the ones that touch on sexual orientation and gender identity, we get a sense of how ALL our various identities and their intersections make us who we are, and connect us to others.
There are many ways to share your personal stories once you’ve collected them. You can start a blog, attend poetry slams or live storytelling events, contribute to an online video initiative like “It Gets Better,” or provide an oral history for the Arizona LGBT+ History Project (arizonalgbthistory.com). All it takes to get started is an open notebook, the willingness to dig deep into your memories and the belief that your stories matter.
I know the next time I decide to write about my life, the blank page won’t get the best of me. Because I’ve seen it happen with others, I know that when it comes to discussing my own memories, I believe, along with Mark Twain, “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.”