The Painful Narrative that No Longer Serves Me

August 19, 2019 § 25 Comments

rae author photoBy Rae Pagliarulo

A little while ago, in a fit of whimsy, I sold an article about my two biggest obsessions―Gilmore Girls and tarot cards―to a major website known for lifestyle and pop culture content. It felt great―I got to share this nerdy piece that brought me pure happiness, and I did it on a new platform that was previously outside my comfort zone.

One of my most trustworthy writing partners, a woman who consistently gives me the most thoughtful and truthful feedback a writer could ask for, gushed praise in an email to me.

“I loved it because it felt like a whole different you,” she said, “like the person who wrote it is lighter and happier than the person who wrote everything else.” Then, “I feel like the writer Rae I know has always been buried beneath layers and layers of pain and bad experiences, but the person who wrote this has finally climbed her way up to the surface and just stuck her face in the sun for the first time.”

Because I am an overflowing bag of all the feelings, I had sixteen different emotions about her reaction. But the strongest emotion was a hybrid of shame, tinged with pride. Shall we call that shmide? Prame? (Can you feel both at the same time? Trust me. You can.)

I felt shame because she was right―since I started writing “seriously,” I’ve clung to a few major narratives, most of which revolve around codependency, depression, and addiction. Sometimes, if I’m feeling experimental, I’ll throw in heartbreak and self-hate, too. These stories – the ones that have centered around my most painful lessons – felt like the most valuable thing I could put forward. Why else would I have gone through these experiences, I thought, if not to share what I learned with others? I’ve spent years applying my love of language to pain and trauma, a careful alchemy that felt like a calling. Sure, a calling that has given me endless stress, worry, and frustration, but a calling nonetheless. Of course it would be difficult to tell the most charged and challenging stories of my life. Of course it would be a struggle I could not unburden myself from.

At the same time, her comment made me feel immense pride. Anyone who knows me in the real world, far away from the glowing screens of my published essays, knows I am an optimistic, cheerful, sometimes maddeningly bubbly person who tries to find joy anywhere she can. The new piece I published wasn’t painful to write―it was a perfect reflection of my real-life voice, my interests, and my outlook. Yes, on top of my dark, twisty interior, knotted tight with anguish and self-reflection, beats the heart of a truly annoying Gilmore Girls fan who pulls tarot cards when she isn’t sure what to have for dinner. Beyond being a woman with a past full of difficult relationships and years of cutting myself down until I was barely recognizable, I am also a woman who can rattle off funny stories about disastrous first dates, musings about female friendships, and thoughtful missives about the genuine benefits of watching Hallmark made-for-TV movies.

I realized, after reading my friend’s supportive and celebratory email, that I had been called out in the best way possible. I have been struggling to effectively tell “my story” for a few years now. Each time I think I’ve made progress, something busts up the foundation I’ve laid and puts me back to square one. My Google Drive is overflowing with unfinished drafts, half-revised, clunky essays, and blathering notes to myself about what a ridiculous failure I am.

What if all this teeth-gnashing is happening because I’m holding on too tight to a narrative that no longer defines me?

What if the thing I thought I was called to do is actually the thing that’s holding me back?

To be sure, I’m not going to stop writing about my past as a way to understand it and create connections with people who have experienced similar things. However, I think this exploration of lighter topics could be just the break I was looking for. A way to share my voice without having to dig it up from the deepest depths. A way to remember that I am made of so many different things, and even if they aren’t deep or meaningful or heartbreaking, they can still be what connects people to my work, and to me. I don’t have to be one kind of person, or one kind of writer. If I can accept all the disparate parts of me as a functional whole, then I can trust the people who read my work to do the same.

I have long lurked in the Binders Facebook groups, reading with wonder as talented writers turned around thoughtful reaction pieces and hilarious listicles one day, and poignant braided essays about family trauma the next. Everything I was working on felt so heavy, so burdensome, so impossible to finish. I envied those writers, believing that kind of lightness couldn’t come out of me, believing that I couldn’t look away from what hurt long enough to talk about the small delights of my life. Believing, maybe, that my value as a writer hinged on those painful narratives.But it feels like change is now inevitable. An essential adjustment, not just to the kind of pieces I write, but to the trauma-identified writer mentality that I have maintained for so long. I’ve still got years of heartbreak and pain to talk about, and if I live a full life, I will have many more years in front of me. But I also want to talk about moisturizing sheet masks and psychic mediums and online dating and that new show on Freeform. And there’s value in all of it.
Rae Pagliarulo is the flash nonfiction editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living in the fundraising and resource development sector. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at


§ 25 Responses to The Painful Narrative that No Longer Serves Me

  • aklotz2014 says:

    Love, love, love this piece.

  • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

    Loved your piece. It’s so useful to reflect on our narratives. I find myself breaking up and reforming these days.

  • W Va says:

    I so appreciated this essay! I have worked for several years now on trauma writing,and just want to break from the heaviness for awhile!
    I no longer want to define myself by those stories.

    I have a nice face mask waiting, so….

  • Love this: “I don’t have to be one kind of person, or one kind of writer.” Truth!

  • Joanne says:

    This: “And there’s value in all of it.” Yes, and congratulations on unearthing the optimist standing alongside the rest. Your essay puts me in mind of Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Yes, you do. Kudos!

  • Kim Hinson says:

    Rae! Thank you, thank you for sharing this! You voiced what has been going on in my own head and heart for quite awhile. Reading it this morning was just exactly what I needed…I feel FREE! Yay!

  • hippocampusmag says:

    Oh, Rae. I love this. I love you.

  • chrissy says:

    You found a new piece of yourself. Good for you!

  • Allison K Williams says:

    Rae this is AWESOME, I love it as a writer and as a person!

  • gmabrown says:

    This awareness one recognized has possibly added new notes, a full set of unvoiced chords to your voice, rounding you out, opening a window to unsung songs…Silly talk, but I want some anyway. Me, too.

  • Hmm, more food for thought. I get the focus on tragedy in a lifetime—I agree, we do have lessons to share and more to learn in the process of excavating our vulnerability. I find myself tiring of my hothouse emotional history (some 60 years of it)…and find writing nonfiction so exciting due to myriad possibilities it unleashes. One can, of course, muse about even bittersweet times within the context of a rollicking good story of greater parameters.
    So glad you are reconsidering and seeing your writing self in a fuller context–and will be sharing more of the fun.

  • This so resonates with me, Rae, thank you for sharing! I, too, have been bound by a defining narrative for too long, wondering if I’ll ever be able to write something light and humorous. But, with my memoir piecing together all that old narrative coming out next year, I’m gunning for writing lighter in the future. Thanks for the reassurance. Caroline

  • beth says:

    Surely the most powerful (and haunting) line in the piece, the line at the emotional core of the piece: “What if the thing I thought I was called to do is actually the thing that’s holding me back?” It is a real (and terrifying) possibility. I thank you for giving voice to that line. It is one that many of us would do well to consider … and explore further in our own essays.

  • Rae, I love your words, “I don’t have to be one kind of person, or one kind of writer.” Recently I redefined myself and my writing for many of the same reasons you write here. I feel so much freer about my blog and other writing I create. Good for you!

  • I adore this piece. YES, we can write toward pain or joy. Once in a while, joy has got to win!

  • butt1forme7 says:

    I like this story. Joy will always win!!

  • Margaret says:

    Thank you Rae for this uplifting post which has really given me a sense of where I am at at present in my writing.

  • Ed Markovich says:

    I don’t know much about the female psyche, although the Greeks tell us that all of our psyches are female. But your piece reminded me of what I learned from the poet Robert Bly’s “Iron John” about my maleness. We all suffer shame and rejection by the gods (our parents) with a few solitary exceptions (Jesus and the Buddha perhaps. Since the male is doomed to either hate himself for his shame and rejection or else, metaphorically, kill and eat the father, I wonder if gifted souls like you are not meant to do the same with you mother/sister gods. By this I mean, to “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, overcome them.” Just a thought for you my dear sister.

  • buhleee says:

    i am a first time blogger i find this as an exciting experience ,i am hoping to learn more and understand things as you guys share your amazing stories. hopefully one day i will be able to share mine to.

  • blakedani says:

    This has some great information!

  • Bill says:

    I loved your writing style. It was as uplifting as the smile on your face in your bio photo. Keep it up …. from all of you !

  • DoingDewey says:

    Really lovely essay! All of us are a mix of many things and getting a full picture of many different parts of who you are in this essay made me want to read more of your work.

  • Ronna says:

    Yes to this! Just wrote a blurb about driving to Lancaster from Kent and was amazed at the relief I felt to just wrote something funny. I mean, I thought it was funny.
    Your session at HC19 was hilarious and more, please.

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