By Morgan Riedl, Colorado Review Editorial Assistant
Recently, I attended a storytelling event with a friend. After the performance, we discussed what it’s like to write and share stories, and agreed to send each other a story we’d written. Shortly after I got home, my phone buzzed with a text: “I’m so nervous for you to read my story!”
When I saw the message, I wasn’t surprised by the admission. Even though I immediately recognized the feeling, I experienced it like a memory. My head could recall, with acute clarity, my body’s visceral response to sharing a story for the first time; however, my body, which actually suffered the symptoms, could not recall the feeling.
The first time I had a piece workshopped I struggled to hear my classmates’ feedback over the sound of my heart pounding in my ear. My soul was exposed on the page, and I worried it would become a casualty in the critique of my craft. Luckily, after class I left with it still (mostly) intact, but I could barely remember any of my classmates’ comments. It was like I had blacked out.
Now in my final year of the MA program in creative nonfiction at CSU, I’ve been through so many workshops that I’ve become all but numb to the process. When it’s my week to email a story for workshop, I operate on autopilot when I click “attach,” sending drafts haunted by my darkest demons without thinking twice about it.
Part of this certainly speaks to the class culture the English professors at this university create. But I’ve also become more confident in both my writing and myself. Now when my peers critique my work, I’m so focused on improving my story that I don’t even consider how personal its content is and the fact that my peers could judge me for it. I’ve realized that during workshop I perform a Voldemort-like feat and splice my soul in half: I become two Morgans—the “writer at the desk” (narrator!Morgan) and the “writer on the page” (character!Morgan). For that hour, it doesn’t matter what is revealed about my character-self because she is just a character in a story and not the actual me sitting in the classroom. In this way, sharing doesn’t have to be personal even when the story is.
I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that there are some stories I’m not ready to write and share. Not yet, anyway. But sharing myself in my writing doesn’t faze me like it used to.
That night at the storytelling event, my friend commented about the bravery it takes to share a story, and I had agreed. I still agree, but I don’t think I’m brave for sharing my stories. Maybe that’s because so far I haven’t had that much at stake when I’ve written about myself, and I know people who risk a lot more when sharing their stories.
Still, writing my stories used to demand substantial courage. Though that’s as not true anymore, I do think that writing has made me brave(er than I used to be). Pursuing stories has compelled me to try new experiences. Writing literary journalism made me travel to places I never would have visited before and meet people I never would have run into otherwise. These are things my little introverted heart avoided for the longest time. But writing required me to step out of my comfort zone and, eventually, adventuring became a habit. Soon I found that not only had my comfort zone grown exponentially, but I was also willing to keep pushing its boundaries (with or without a story on the line).
In addition to offering an initial impetus, writing also offers a sort of safety net. When I signed up for Tinder and suffered through several tasteless online interactions and a handful of regrettable dates, I wallowed for a while. I wrote to process my feelings and in doing so realized my pity party was unnecessary. I was able to salvage a decent story from that awful experience.
I had an epiphany in a mundane moment. Bad days no longer had to be just bad days; they could be good stories—and suddenly I saw story opportunities everywhere. Suddenly, I saw life differently. I could decide something was good and make it so. It was a matter of perception. Still, when you’re in the moment, those silver linings can be hard to see. With this new perspective, I am far more willing to take risks. Whatever the result, the experience is something I can appreciate and write about.
When I read my friend’s story, I loved it and told her so. She expressed relief, which was quickly followed by joy. Amid my gushing over her story, I forgot I’d even sent her mine. When she responded in kind, I reacted with happiness, but there was no relief because there had been no fear to relieve. It wasn’t that I was confident or that I didn’t value her response; I just didn’t see my story heart (stilled on the page) as my actual heart (beating in my chest). So, while she had been brave to share her story, I had not been. It’s not that writing is brave—though it can be—as much as writing makes me brave.