This world. This place. This life.

Burn your stories


Writers give the world a gift: they name experience.

They find words, string them together, and share them. And when they get just the right combination, their audience says, “Yes! That’s exactly right!”

Naming experience feels good. It scratches the itch in the back of your mind. It brings a fuzzy image into focus. It builds a bookshelf, and organizes your library.

But naming also has a downside.

Once we name an experience, it’s frozen. The name makes its meaning so clear, there’s no room for other explanations.

Last week I told a friend a story from my childhood.

It’s a great story. It makes so many things clear. It helps me understand why I struggle.

And my friend heard it that way. “Oh,” she said, with a shake of her head. “Oh, my.”

But then she said, “You know, you’re almost forty years from when that happened.”

And those few words helped melt the ice trapping me in one perspective. They gave me room to see myself in a new way.

Words are certainly a gift. We need tools to bring the world into focus. We need ways to understand the stream of experience in which we swim.

But the stories we tell ourselves are dangerous, because they are so compelling. We clutch them in our hands, holding on for dear life.

It’s not that we should stop telling stories. But we do need to hold them in open hands, to sweep them from the table like mandala sand.

So tell a story. And burn it. Tell another. And burn it. Again and again.

Don’t worry. What’s true will survive.

6 thoughts on “Burn your stories

  1. so very very true. kinda argued the point on a friend’s blog the other day about this, the inherent danger in telling the past in a certain way, locking it in, and then not finding the wisdom in all the other facets and interpretations. keeps me from writing sometimes. love the burn analogy.

    • Ah, the many things that keep us from writing. 😉

      I love your writing voice, and I’m always happy when something from you pops up in Feedly.

      If we’re ever in the same time zone, I’d love to spend an afternoon with you, discovering where life has taken us in the time since we last talked IRL. Maybe we can compromise and video chat.

  2. Sort of a ‘historia divina’ – I’m making up bad Latin here – but….

    Tell the story. Tell it again. Tell it again shorter, distilling it to its essence. Tell it again at length, with all the details. Wait a day. Tell it again. Wait a week, a month, a year. Tell it again. Wait a decade. Wait a lifetime. Tell it again.

    But don’t burn the old ones. Just put them quietly away, so you can return to them after each retelling and see what changes.

    It is always a new story. It is always the same old story.

    • I love this, Claire. And it reminds me of the old writing advice about not worrying if you lose a draft–you’ll write it better the second time around. In this case, with this particular story, it feels like movement from the story owning me, to me owning the story.

  3. I like this a lot, Heather! But are there also healthy ways to hold on to the stories that are worth remembering?

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