In 2006 I was living in a stripped-out Chevy van in a Denver, Colorado Walmart parking lot with a Rottweiler and a cat. Three years later, I was in England at Oxford University, speaking at TED Global courtesy of Dan Pink, bestselling author and former head speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore.
How did I go from one place to the other in such a short amount of time? Simple. By writing for my life. One of the things that only a handful of people know about me is that at the time I was competing to speak at TED Global, not just attend it, I had two TED talks prepared and accepted. Organizers had to choose the one they did and decided on it because it best fit that year’s theme — on being invisible.
The talk I didn’t give was entitled “Writing for My Life.” It was writing for my life in a competition Dan Pink hosted that landed me in one of three spots as a finalist.
In the last days I stayed up all night writing a free ebook to be a give away to would-be voters in an online competition. The ebook was the next chapter I suggested adding to Dan Pink’s best-selling book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. It was part of my strategy to get people’s attention, and to win the popular vote and the attention of motivational speaker and business blogger, Seth Godin.
( https://seths.blog/2009/01/traffic-magnets/ ) With a little bit of Seth’s help, I won the contest that got me to TED. Then I was offered the chance to compete to win a slot to speak at TED.
Once I was notified I’d be talking at TED Global 2009, I began to write my TED talk. That same week I had received word about another essay contest for a book by Tim Russert, at the time a Senior Vice President of NBC. That win led to more opportunities and an agent.
Writing, like I say, literally saved my life. This post is not the talk, “writing for my life,” but it’s based on it.
Since 2009 I’ve realized that when we write with authenticity about anger, fear, betrayal, and the things that move us, scare us, and challenge us, we heal. I know this to be a fact.
How It Began
I began writing for my life at the age of 10. My father would get drunk, come into my room with his belt in hand, commanded I strip off all my clothes, and then he’d beat and molest me for no reason other than he felt like it. One day I said, out of the blue, “Let me write a paper about why you shouldn’t do this.” He stopped short, belt in hand.
He started college at age 30. A shoe salesman, a high school friend had come into his shoe store one day. He asked him what he was doing, and he told him he was a dentist. My father came home that day, declared if “that dumb ass could graduate from college and medical school, he could too.” He listed the house for sale that day, and a year later was enrolled in the University of Tennessee. At the time he came into my room, he had just graduated from dental school and was working on a post-graduate degree. He’d been the first in his family ever to graduate from high school, and with six years of higher education finished and more in the wings, he was nuts about school. He was always studying or writing papers.
He listened to me, appeared to think about it for a few minutes, then said, “Okay.” I worked on the one and a half page paper for over an hour then left my room and took it to him. He was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking sweet tea and eating a sandwich. He read my essay, looked solemn for a moment, then suggested a few changes. He never beat me again. I had to write a lot of papers for the next four years, but my writing saved me.
Since then, I’ve written a lot — both to save my life and the lives of others. I avoided homelessness earlier in life by entering a short-story contest for the local newspaper and winning a turkey and $50. I landed a job with the paper shortly after that and saved my housing situation.
I wrote about ‘Buddy,’ a golden Labrador whose owner, a runner, was going to have the dog put down rather than give him up to a home where he wouldn’t be able to run every day. His owner was moving out-of-state, and Buddy couldn’t go with him. He loved running too much and would be miserable confined to a yard. His owner reached out to the newspaper in one last attempt to find a new owner. The editor thought it was a stupid story, not really newsworthy, and so he gave it to me, the “new guy.” So, I wrote for Buddy’s life. I wrote about Buddy’s “last run,” and the “last sights, last treats, last hugs” he encountered along the way he and his owner ran every day. The story ran, and another runner adopted buddy within 24 hours. The outpouring of letters and calls surprised the editor and the newsroom.
I wrote for me, for others, and I wrote when others had stopped writing. The year was 1989, and a local sailor came to the paper wanting to tell his story about the explosion of the USS Iowa only weeks before. I listened as he cried, describing the scene. He was the first man into the turret and recalled having to break limbs of dead sailors to get them out of the turret. My stories reignited interest in the explosion. The Navy claimed two gay sailors having a lover’s quarrel had set off the explosion — even though both men were married and shipmates claimed the men were not gay. Their wives lost all benefits because the Navy ruled the explosion and their involvement a “crime,” and closed the case. Then my story ran — not just locally, but nationally. The media attention forced the Navy to reopen the investigation and reverse their decision (although never admitting they were wrong) The widows of the two sailors accused of wrongdoing received death benefits after all.
I’m not bragging. I’m using examples from my life to show you how powerful writing can be if we understand what it can do. Writing is more than just entertainment, amusement, or education. It can heal us, strengthen us, and change us if we let it. When non-profits write for funding, when lovers write love notes, when those with mental health issues write to exorcise their demons, they’re all writing for their lives. No matter what your situation is, you can write for your health, healing, and life too.
How To Write For Your Life
Millions of us write every day. We write emails, Facebook posts, texts, reports, and proposals. We write for work, for school, for family and friends. But we rarely “write for our lives.”
What does it mean to “write for your life”? Define it how you will, but I say “writing for your life,” means writing to be heard and to make a difference. Being heard means someone understands you, gets you, and your message touches them, changes them, pulls them up short and makes them think, or take a second look.
- Understand your end goal and keep it in front of you. I was at a writer’s conference with a client of mine this past August. We were talking about her daughter being worried that her classmates wouldn’t all like her unless she fit in better (clothes, hair, etc.). I asked her what her daughter’s “end game” was — did she want to be liked, or want to be an actress? Once you know what your end game or ultimate goal is, you can ignore the distractions and rabbit trails all around you and focus on your message and getting it heard. Her daughter wanted to be an actress — and that would mean doing things that guaranteed not everyone would like her — like being true to her hairstyle and fashion and music sense. When you know what your end goal is, everything that won’t help you reach that goal is no longer important.
- Cry, but Turn Off the Tears in Your Writing. I was working with another client on her memoir. It read like a year’s worth of therapy notes — tears, pain, grief, and anguish. It was cathartic for her, wrenching for the reader who committed to reading it, but nothing anyone else would find a “good read.” Readers, I explained, aren’t looking for more of what they’ve experienced. They’re looking for solutions, insights, awareness, and tips and stories on how you escaped the pain, how you healed, how you survived.
When she changed her narrative from victim to survivor, and seriously looked at how she had gotten out of her abusive relationship she began to write differently. She wrote about how she found the strength to move out of state, and how she learned to take care of herself. In her writing, she found the strength she’d always taken for granted and integrated all her broken pieces into one whole — her book. She chose not to publish it, but simply cherish it and refer back to it. Sometimes we don’t need an audience. Sometimes we just need to listen to ourselves.
When you write for your life, write to show where you’re strong, why you matter, what you stand for, not why someone should rescue you or how pitiful you are. Not only does that kind of writing become a part of you, but it also gets into your brain and changes your perception of yourself. It heals you. There’s nothing wrong with crying, or with sharing your journey, your past, or your pain. Just do it in such a way people understand it doesn’t define you. It happened to you, and you’re dealing with it.
- Be Authentic. Your history and the details of your story don’t have to have all the elements and drama for a made-for-television-movie. The story just has to be real and to be you. When Buddy’s owner came to the newspaper, he was looking for someone to adopt his dog, so he didn’t have to put him down. It was a love story, not a tragedy. I didn’t embellish, or plead, or try to convince anyone they should adopt him. I just told the story and detailed a day in the life of a dog who loved to run with his master. When you tell an authentic story, readers get it. You don’t need special effects, or “spin,” or tricks. You don’t need to manipulate them into feeling something you assumer or think they “should” feel. You just need to be real.
- Don’t have a scripted ending. One of the things my clients worry about is crafting their ending before they’ve even begun to write the book. Don’t. The ending will take care of itself if the story is authentic and pulled from your heart. Trust yourself and the process to let it play out. Don’t try to control the ending. Let it emerge. You might be pleasantly surprised by how good it is.
- Don’t question whether it’s “good” or “newsworthy” or important. If it’s important to you, it will be important to those who matter, and those who share your pain, insight, thoughts, or wisdom. While working for Media General, I started my first blog, http://apublicdeath.blogspot.com/2007/06/christopher-scott-emmett.html. I was selected in a journalist’s lottery to attend and watch the execution of Christopher Scott Emmett. Emmett was convicted in October of 2001 for the capital murder of co-worker John Langley in Danville, Virginia. I was pressured to write about being a pro-or-anti death penalty. But the fact was, I didn’t know what I believed. Having been a police officer briefly, and worked for the Boulder, CO prosecutor’s office, I had the background and exposure to murders. But I didn’t know where I stood on the topic of the death penalty. So, I chronicled my journey, my doubts, my fears, my questions, and my experience.
You don’t have to an ending, a position, or a scripted narrative to write for your life. You just need to have something to say that you desperately want others to hear. And, if you’re not sure what it is you want others to hear, write it anyway. The purpose will emerge.
Becky Blanton was a TED Global speaker in 2009. A journalist for 23 years, Becky is and has been a full-time ghostwriter for ten years since her TED Global talk. She has worked with three-time bestselling author, publisher, and corporate ghostwriter Melissa G Wilson of Networlding.com for more than six years. Becky is also a developmental editor for business books and business memoirs for CEOs, Fortune 500 companies, and business speakers. Right now, she’s writing to save herself again. She has a paralyzed vocal cord as a result of a common cold virus and hasn’t been able to speak for six months. Without surgery to correct it, she’ll never talk again. Writing for one’s life can take many forms, but all of them heal. Hope always finds a way.