You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth
July 22, 2022 § 21 Comments
By Abby Alten Schwartz
I’m 11 years old and reading under my covers by flashlight, trying not to get caught by my mother awake past my bedtime. I’ve discovered Judy Blume books, and I don’t mean her stories for little kids about pet dogs and turtles and dogs named Turtle, but the ones about ‘tweens, a term that hasn’t yet been coined in the late 1970s.
Blume writes about bullying, periods, masturbation—taboo in kid lit until she disrupted the genre. At school, my friends and I pass her books between us like trading cards. We can’t get enough. We feel seen. Represented.
As an adult, I devour memoirs, voracious for the humanity and raw intensity of real life stories. During my first two years of motherhood, when my baby is admitted to the hospital again and again for an escalating series of medical emergencies, these books become my refuge.
I read by the glow of my Itty Bitty Book Light in the darkness of my daughter’s hospital room, and the words infuse me with hope. If these writers can survive their own circumstances of illness or loss, or find happiness after their lives are upheaved like sand from a beach blanket, perhaps my family will be okay.
On its surface, the pleasure of reading is pure escapism—I can slip into another person’s life, “lose myself” in a book. What’s even more exhilarating is when I find myself instead. My favorite books are studded with shimmering emotional truths that connect me to the story on a deeper level. They reward me with a shiver of validation: I am not alone.
It’s only after I begin writing my own memoir that the thrill of recognition I’ve always loved as a reader unexpectedly turns to dismay.
I’m nine months into my writing when I read Suleika Jaouad’s gorgeous memoir, Between Two Kingdoms. Ironically, it was Jaouad’s pandemic-born online writing project, The Isolation Journals, that put me on my current writing path.
Reading her memoir, I am struck throughout by the similarity of moments we’ve both experienced contending with life-threatening illness. In more than one instance, she beautifully articulates a thought that not only resonates personally, but relates to themes I am exploring in my own work. I catch myself thinking: Oh crap, she beat me to it.
Yet, our stories are vastly different.
Jaouad writes of being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer just as her adult life is starting, and the cross-country road trip she takes in order to move forward after years of treatment and isolation. I write about raising a daughter with cystic fibrosis, and how the hypervigilance that once protected me in childhood becomes a greater threat to our relationship than her deadly disease.
I start to notice parallels in other books. Becoming a writer has changed how I read. It’s the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon—when you first become aware of something and then suddenly you encounter it everywhere. I’m so focused on my work-in-progress, I see bits of it wherever I look. A relatable passage in one writer’s book, a similar turn-of-phrase in another, a tone of voice that rings familiar to mine. It rattles me.
I worry my own writing might inadvertently echo another’s. I worry that if I don’t hurry up and finish my manuscript, land a publishing deal, and get my story out into the world, bits of it will escape prematurely, preempted by other writers with similar experiences. (I told you I’m hypervigilant.)
Reading comps for my proposal only amps up the urgency. I’ve confessed in this blog of my writer’s FOMO, but this is about more than fear of missing out. I’m eager to join the conversation—excited to add my story to the ones that have inspired me, changed me, validated my beliefs or challenged them, and taught me how to navigate difficult days.
“Tell the story only you can tell,” we hear as writers again and again. Maybe our challenge is not to express only those thoughts that have never before been written, but to trust in our unique viewpoints, write as authentically as we can, and not psych ourselves out in the meantime.
Our stories don’t have to be discrete to be worthy of telling. A good writer presents the gift of a different perspective, a powerful lens through which we can examine an event or idea and glean new meaning. Isn’t that why we write? To pan through the soil of shame and trauma and even the mundane (especially the mundane) for nuggets of gold? And as readers, aren’t those nuggets what we live to discover?
Universality is what draws people in and creates an intimacy that flows between the writer and reader. When our experiences and opinions overlap and our voices blend, maybe the result is not redundancy, but harmony.
The truth is, I can’t recall a single line of prose from any of the memoirs that gave me pause. In the moment there was recognition. And after, just gratitude for the beauty of solidarity. I am not alone.
Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, Hobart, The Manifest-Station, WIRED, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She moonlights as a healthcare copywriter, designer and marketing consultant. Abby is currently writing HYPERVIGILANT, a kaleidoscopic memoir about her journey from trepidation to trust. Find her on Twitter @abbys480 or visit abbyaltenschwartz.com.