“We live inside stories. Stories we tell ourselves about who we are, about where we come from, about what the world is.” Now, more than ever, author Samantha Dunn is committed to telling her story and to helping others tell their stories, too. “This is a long game, folks,” she writes. “Be the storytellers.”
I am not a Republican. You are not a Democrat. None of us lives inside political parties. We live inside stories. Stories we tell ourselves about who we are, about where we come from, about what the world is, about who and what are good and who and what are bad.
People, and nations, get locked into narratives. I was the bastard child of a single mother, a girl who grew up in, among other places, a trailer park on a highway running into New Mexico’s wilderness.
I was this until I was not this any more.
I believed the Indians welcomed the Pilgrims, and that every person in this country had the same straight road to success if only they worked hard enough.
I believed this until I did not believe this any more.
We cling to our story until another story comes along that touches our heart. And when our hearts have been touched, only then will we consider changing our minds.
And what touches our hearts? Direct, personal stories about the way life is lived inside another person’s skin. These are stories that make us see parts of ourselves that we recognize, or parts that we have never understood or been able to name. Because I have taught memoir and personal essay writing for more than a decade, I have had the privilege of getting inside a great many stories. I have cried from inside the stories more often than not.
What it is:
… to have your father beat you senseless because you’re gay.
… being left bloodied because someone hated your skin’s darker pigment, or your skin’s lighter pigment.
… cutting your own wrists and the regret of not going deep enough.
… pitching a live grenade at the enemy before his rifle could be aimed at your head.
… leaving your swaddled baby in the hands of strangers because the needle or the bottle screamed, “Come to me instead.”
… to rob a bank, and to fail at robbing a bank.
… being raped by your rich husband as your hips bloom purple bruises, smashed again and again against a perfect limestone counter in a perfect Emerald Bay home.
These stories and so many more have stretched my heart, sometimes painfully, sometimes to the point where I thought I could not bear it. But, always, each has forced me to see something that made my understanding about us, this human thing, so much bigger.
Sometimes, these stories that change us are the very own stories of our lives, which, once we wrestle them onto the page, shine back at us new insight and awareness about who we’ve been in the world. And that changes us.
This has been the one constant truth of my life. And it is the truth I witness teaching hundreds of people in writing classes. It is the truth reflected to me from the comments of readers of my work. It is the truth I reflect back to other writers, whose stories give me a better way to be in the world.
I’m over the political handwringing that has made me physically ill since Nov. 8. I’m still sending my money to the causes I believe in. I’m still supporting any and all political activism.
But now, more than ever, I am committed to telling my story and to helping others see and tell their stories, wherever they are.
The people I say I hate? They are trapped inside stories that are destroying all of us. My mission, my religion, is to change those stories, or at least create a crack in them that will let something else grow from them, eventually. Probably not in my lifetime.
Frankly, I’ve been in despair over this, thinking of all the beautiful, enlightened stories that already exist, have existed, that would change the world if only they were read by the people who need them most.
But then I remember, those stories that changed me, they were written in times of darkness too. There has never been an ideal age. Hatred and dominance and destruction have been our realities since forever. Those stories I love, those stories that have been my lifeline? They were missives launched into an unknown future, like a message in a bottle, yet somehow, they arrived to me, and my life was altered forever.
This is a long game, folks. Be the storytellers.
Samantha Dunn is the executive editor of Coast Magazine and the author of several books, including the novel “Failing Paris” and a bestselling memoir, “Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life.” Sam’s work is anthologized in a number of places, including the short story anthology “Women on the Edge: Writing from Los Angeles,” which she co-edited. She has also written for the stage and has taken a few turns screenwriting as a member of the Writers Guild of America. She teaches at Chapman University, in the UCLA Extension Writers Program and at the Idyllwild Arts Center in California, and is an adviser in the PEN USA Emerging Voices program.