After All Is Said and Done: Whose Story Is It?

storytellerFor the better part of a year now, I’ve been contemplating the ideas surrounding stories, particularly perspective and ownership. This is because I’m immersed in the writing of a novel based on a real historical event, from the viewpoint of a character who has stayed silent for years. The problem is that she’s not sure if it’s actually her story to tell, and I keep telling her yes indeed, it is. But she’s still being a pain in the ass, so I’m still working on how to make her just do it. (I’ve retreated to 3rd POV to make her do it, but she doesn’t appreciate the narrator intruding).

Not for the first time, Harriet thought that the story had never been hers to tell. She had merely been an unwilling witness, and then a passive participant, in that piece of history. God, it was so long ago. But yet, sometimes in her memory it felt like just yesterday; the emotions she’d felt rising to the surface so easily anytime she dared to give it more than a passing thought.

Perhaps I just need to give her more wine…


Have you ever told a story and, while telling it, wondered if it was in fact yours to tell? Because stories intersect and overlap, sometimes your story involves somebody else’s story–so then who has the right to tell it?

For years I shied away from talking about Doug’s head injury because, although it did affect me too in some ways, I didn’t feel that it was my story–my business–to talk about it, to share the details, to even let other people know what had happened. I felt that, while I didn’t view him as any less of a person, perhaps he did in fact view it as a deficiency and if that was the case, I didn’t think I should be spreading that private information around.

There have been several occasions when one of the kids–usually Becky–has started to tell me something about another person and, sensing that it was personal to that person, I’ve stopped them from telling it. “Think about it,” I’ve said to them. “Is it my business to know this or your business to tell it? It sounds private to me, and perhaps you shouldn’t have been told it to begin with.” They’re eager to tell it anyway, in the hardwired way we humans seem to always want to share news, especially bad news, and especially bad news that’s far removed from us. (Why is that? Maybe a blog idea for another time.)

Story-telling is an age-old custom: As long as humans have had a way to communicate, they’ve been telling stories. And there have probably always been questions about whose story it is to tell. Take Shakespeare for example: It’s been said that he stole stories from other writers (or that he was, in fact, a bunch of writers operating under a pseudonym). Truth be damned though–history has credited “his” stories to him, whether or not it’s a proper accreditation. One can make an argument for the Bible as well. Do you think Adam wanted everybody to know that he was the reason they lost Paradise, and over a girl?! He’s certainly not the one that told that story.

Back to modern day, a great example of somebody telling somebody else’s story is Humans of New York. But founder/photographer Brandon Stanton has permission to tell his subjects’ stories. If he didn’t tell them, these people would languish in obscurity, the way that most of us languish in obscurity. And yet, he shows us and them that everybody has a story to tell and often the very person you’d least expect to find interesting–based on appearance, prejudice or just plain ignorance–has the most fascinating story. He tells their stories by giving them a platform to tell us themselves, and it’s really quite breathtaking..

Of course, the beauty of storytelling really lies in the skill of the storyteller. Whether it’s their story to tell almost doesn’t matter…to the audience. I’m pretty sure it matters to the person whose story it is. Of course, this is my novel, so it’s always my story to tell. I might just have to go gangster on my main character. Hear that, Harriet? There are ways to make you talk…

…and I’m working on them. I swear.

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3 thoughts on “After All Is Said and Done: Whose Story Is It?

  1. Great commentary, I would love to Share with the Student Press Initative, at our school. Every year juniors add to a published book that they create, and it’s their story to tell. As far as my story, if a story that could have been tragic and then became a triumph can inspire, then by all means tell my story. My sister in law’s painting, which was created after my assault, makes me feel good because a great batch of lemonaide was made.

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  2. Wow! How timely for me. Just this weekend on a road trip with my hubby, I mentioned I was thinking of writing an essay about a pivotal life moment for an upcoming contest. In no uncertain terms, he told me he’d rather I not. In my head it was my story, and I was a central figure. I felt the urge to share my experience. The problem? It was also his story and he doesn’t want it out there in essay form. Strangely enough, I must have sensed this subconsciously as I never check my topics with him. This time I did. I instantly realized he was well within his rights to expect me, his life partner, to honor his wishes. I’m thinking of fictionalizing my experience now. The essay is only one tool of a storyteller and I’m working on adding to my tool box! This is a great topic – thought provoking.

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    • It’s an interesting thing to consider, especially for writers. Even when blogging, I think about what I reveal that’s private and what to make public. I’m glad you’re honoring his wishes, and I agree with the need to fictionalize instead! 😉

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