“Confess your own story, not someone else’s,” has been my writing motto of late. Since the motto has served me well, I sometimes endeavor to pass on my insights, as I did recently, when an overnight guest of a woman who delighted me with show-and-tell details of certain events that shaped her life.

"I'm so happy you selected my home, Edith," she greeted me at the door. "So glad to get to know you. I'm in the midst of taking a writing workshop." Clearly my host, a musician by vocation, had read up on my training, deliberated over her life story, and planned ahead what to share and show. She may have looked about for a willing ear before, or she may have tried, by stops and starts, to catch her stories on paper; whatever the case, during those evening hours with me she proved a lively conversationalist.

Next morning my host, let's call her Darlene, served breakfast of sliced grapefruit and baked oatmeal pudding. Like our talk, she had prepared the meal ahead of time.

"I'm going to put on my teacher's hat for a minute," I said, making ready to leave. "I want to give you an assignment."

Her face lit up. "I'd love that," she said.

"All right, then. Write a story about your mother's death."

Darlene's mother, she mentioned the evening before, perished in a snowstorm. At the time, Darlene was ten years old. The mother was driving by herself when her automobile slid into an oncoming train. Seven years later, at her high school graduation, Darlene weighed 280 pounds. She attributes the weight gain to the stress of having to cook, clean, and wash for her father, her siblings, and herself. To this day, Darlene is part of a weight-management group.

"Oh, that!" she said, her tone indicating she thought the exercise superfluous.

"Be sure to take into account the resentment her death must have caused you, and the sense of abandonment you would have felt as a child."

"But I worked through all that in therapy in New York, during my college years."

"Good. You processed the trauma through therapy. This means you'll be able to write about it."

"I suppose so." Darlene had returned to the mid-western town of her birth and devoted to the teaching of voice. She had arrived at what seemed the tranquil life. Yes, she wanted to collect her reminiscences into a book, but Mother's death would figure only marginally.

"When you have the story on paper, give a copy to the wife of your church pastor." The evening before, Darlene had denounced the political outlook of the woman, whose recent letter to the editor, Darlene conjectured, was an embarrassment to the congregation.

"I couldn't do that. It's true, I'm fond of our pastor. Yet his wife and I are on opposite poles."

"Then hand the story to the husband and tell him your assignment is to share with both of them."

Darlene looked at me askance.

As I know all too well, to give of ourselves by disclosing a small if painful truth that's been relegated to the unspoken, is difficult. We prefer not to give it away. We'd rather preach to the choir. It's safe. Meanwhile our stories shrivel in proportion to the shrinking circle with whom we are willing to share. In time, only one or two stories remain. These we repeat to the few people of whose acceptance we rest assured, a couple of friends or family members, even though they already know the stories; indeed, may have grown weary of them. Eventually the stories change into litanies of health problems or family complaints. In the process we prevent others from imparting their stories, thereby engendering lives of fakery and untruth. 

“Confess your own story, not someone else’s” is my personal variant on a phrase attributed to Sidney Jourard. It appears on a website dedicated to the thinker as: “Confess your own sins, not someone else’s.” In my writing, I seek to be faithful to the edict.