The True Story (or, a Humble Acknowledgement of My Own Performativity)

I’m part of a meditation class that meets once a week, and before I dive into what I want to talk about, can I just tell you how much I love it? It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, for real: a small group of insightful women, meeting in a downtown conference room to meditate, get vulnerable, and learn from each other and from the universe. Almost every week, something magical happens for me in class - and this latest session was no exception. The topic was performativity: examining the roles we play in order to get other people to see us in a certain way. I’ll be honest: when Chrysta, who teaches the class, introduced the theme for the day, I was wary. I’m pretty good at being authentic, I thought self-righteously. This probably won’t apply to me all that much. Insert hindsight-driven laughter here, ladies and gentlemen, because oh, how wrong I was. What actually happened was that, instead of sitting there thinking I’ve totally got this, I realized that I recognized in myself not just one, not two, but three of the roles Chrysta described. Oh. The role I identified with most strongly was what she called the Wise Teacher. And just so we’re clear, I am cringing typing this right now. I don’t want to admit this - not to myself, and not to anyone who may read it. But it’s true: I slip into this role because I want to be seen as a Person Who Knows Things and who uses that knowledge to help other people.

That’s not to say I don’t know things. Of course I do - and of course I want to help others by sharing it.

But I had to ask the hard question of myself: am I sharing from a place of authenticity - or a place of wanting everyone to like what I have to say?

Further examination revealed that lately, it’s been the latter.

Why do I write? Why do I talk about the things I do: empowerment, spirituality, growth? I found myself asking this question after class, and the answers have taken me on a journey through the past.

I’ve been writing my whole life. The vast majority of that writing has been for my eyes only in the form of journals - books that I kept to chronicle my day-to-day life, starting at the age of five. That’s over a quarter of a century of documentation, all written neatly by hand in lovely blank books, probably dozens of novels’ worth. The frequency with which I wrote waxed and waned; some years I wrote once a month, some years multiple times a day. But always, I wrote. It’s been the one constant in my life; the one thing I’ve ever managed to do with any sort of consistency.

Why all that writing throughout the years? Honestly, I suspect I’d be dead without it. Writing has always been cathartic for me. It’s always been the thing that allows me to just be me, without anything else in the way. When I was fifteen years old and living with severe yet-to-be-diagnosed depression and seriously contemplating suicide, writing was my therapy. When I was twenty years old and lonely and scared and unsure about which path to take, writing was my best friend. When I was twenty-five years old and stuck in the heartbreaking reality of domestic violence, writing was my secret-keeper; I could reveal in the pages of my journals the things that were too dangerous to say out loud.

All that writing, all those years, was for me. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything else of such magnitude just for myself.

Somewhere along the way, after freeing myself from abuse, working to break limiting patterns, and making significant headway with my self-awareness and mental health, I decided that I wanted to use this power for good. I wanted to help other people create happier and more fulfilling lives for themselves, just as I had.

I still believe that is a beautiful thing to strive for.

But I realized after meditation class the other night that it’s been a long time since I wrote anything just for me.

These days, I write with an audience in mind. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless it’s the only kind of writing I do anymore. Which, by the way, it most definitely is.

I used to churn out blog posts like nobody’s business. I’d sit down in front of the computer, take what was in my heart and turn it into a collection of letters and spaces in a rapid-fire purging of the soul, and hit publish. Period. I didn’t worry so much about whether it was correct. About whether people would like it. About whether such-and-such paragraph would have more impact as an opener or as a conclusion. I didn’t doubt, didn’t question - I just wrote. Because it felt good, and because it’s what my heart was asking me to do.

I asked myself “What do I want to write about today?” instead of “What should I write about today that will prove my value as a person who empowers others?”

After class, it occurred to me that perhaps providing value for others is something that’s inherent in storytelling, period - and that I don’t need to center my writing around that goal.

I like to lay struggles bare, split them open and display their meat, because this is what growth looks like, and I believe sharing our stories is one of our best possible resources for growth. Haven’t I always said this? Why, then, have I been self-censoring? Why have I been so particular about sharing the right story?

Why not just share the true story instead?

The true story is that sometimes I feel like a fraud. There’s a little voice in my head that likes to tell me I’m not a real writer. Dismissing her insistence that I’m nothing but a hack is a daily struggle. And to combat this voice, I slip into the role of Wise Teacher. You see, it’s not just to convince others that I know what I’m talking about - it’s to convince myself.

The true story is that I tend to get caught up in the old “fake it till you make it” bullshit. I tend to forget that I am already a writer, and I am already helping others - they’ve told me so! - and, therefore, there is nothing to fake, for I have made it.

The true story is that I often don’t tell the whole story. I omit the details that might lead readers to believe I don’t have as much knowledge or wisdom to share as I let on. I leave out a lot of my struggles with mental illness: the days that I simply can’t get out of bed, or the moments when I’m trying to focus, but I feel as though I’m standing in the middle of a train station platform, and my thoughts are the trains, zooming past far too quickly for me to grab hold of them, and there’s a roar in my head that makes it impossible to concentrate, and I get so frustrated that I want to rip my brain out of my skull. Yeah. I don’t talk about that.

The true story is that I miss writing for myself - and I want to do it more often.

I think it's worth noting that I sat down to write this post because it was on my heart...and out it came. This is where the magic happens: in that little slip of space that feels like being the only one awake early in the morning, when the world is quiet and I can finally hear the truth my spirit wants to tell. It has nothing to do with marketing, or strategy, or building an audience. It's just...real.

I'll try not to forget again.

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​