“What the %!#& Have I Done to Myself?”: Why Cursing during the Storytelling Process Is Perfectly Normal
It’s almost midnight, and the tea on my bedside nightstand has grown cold, while the computer on my lap has grown very, very hot. Like most of us who work during the day, I only have either early in the morning or deep into the dark recesses of the night to work on my story. The effort to stay awake is met with lots and lots of black tea and a hunk of something sweet to keep the blood pumping.
This story is a little different in that I did not follow the advice I usually give other writers and storytellers but instead wrote a shoddy, undetailed outline of the story I wanted to tell. And then, without another glance in the rearview mirror, I pressed the pedal to the metal and started writing only to realize about one-third of the way through that the outline wasn’t good enough to follow . . . a complete dead end.
Which leads me to here—right this very moment—cradling the cold cup of tea in my hands and staring at my computer screen with what can only be clichédly described as a heavy stone of dread in my gut and the accompanying thoughts:
“I have no idea where I’m going. I have no idea what’s next. I have no idea how this is going to end. ”
Wrestling in the Woods of Storytelling
The reality is that often when we are creating our story, we inevitably reach a point in the process where we recognize the story is alive and ever unfolding. Although we plan step by step for its processional path, the story more often than not takes us down a different road. Whether we are writing fiction, poetry, memoir, self-help, or even brass tacks business writing, the process remains the same. The story that demands to be told has a mind of its own, and its agenda is always to surprise us. As American poet Robert Frost says, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Part of the magic of telling your story belongs to the shock of the journey—the desperation, the wrestling, the dread of not knowing where the words will take you next. To write is to get lost in the woods of our lives. Our stories are full of winding forests we thought we were familiar with and knew so well, only to discover we may actually know very little if anything about them.
The first step in wrestling with your story is accepting the fact that the woods are dark, and your well-lit lantern will always at some point go out. The next step is to feel your way through the darkness, wrestling in the experience until your eyesight adjusts to the challenge, and you can make your way through and find yourself on the path and out of the woods once more.
This wrestling is no easy feat and often comes with a few frustrations along the way. Every storyteller we’ve ever known—and certainly each of our very own storytellers at RTC—commits to the process only to experience a kind of alienating pain in the woods, wrestling with their story.
With no end in sight, one person describes it this way: “[I] took a nap, cried wondering what the f**k I’d done to myself, and then the sun came out . . . all the consternation today was my body wrestling with words—words—and me looking at myself as if I were an alien . . . and yet, and yet . . . once you say these words to a loving audience who doesn’t judge, you are going to be a bird without a cage.”
What do you know—there is freedom in getting lost in the woods, in persisting down the dark and difficult path. Some—of course—get lost in the woods and give up, wave their white flag, and never finish what they started. But for those of us who continue to wrestle with our story, we find freedom in what we meet on the other side. We just have to keep wrestling.
“Part of the magic of telling your story belongs to the shock of the journey—the desperation, the wrestling, the dread of not knowing where the words will take you next.”
Your Story Is the Key to Your Cage
There is a moment in the process of wrestling where a key clicks into a lock, where the woods spread thin and light streaks across the darkness, and you can see your way out—your ending. Right before you exit the woods, your words carry so much weight and pressure and pain that you are unsure if you are ever going to finish the work. You wonder if all this adventure was for nothing.
But looking back, you can see the growth between the person you were when you started the journey and the person you have become. Someone who stood in the face of fear, doubt, and uncertainty and kept going anyway. Someone who wrote down their story with every intention of sharing it with someone else. (Even if, as in my case, that someone is your mom.) Someone who met their challenge, took a nap, cried, and cursed until the sun came out.
What I’ve discovered through shepherding countless storytellers—and through writing down my story myself—is that telling your story, wrestling with it, and surrendering to it truly is the reward. Because telling your story is its own adventure full of scary, painful, and challenging moments. Yet once you do it, you can never look at yourself in the same way. A transformation occurs in wrestling with your story. You are forever changed as a person who stepped into a messy experience and overcame the obstacles that arose—no matter what. You are the hero of your own narrative.
As our dear storyteller above said, you are “a bird without a cage.” This person might have also said, “It’s good to cuss at times!” And in this case, can we argue?
We’ve all been there, wondering what on God’s green earth we were doing, staring at our life’s story, and resolving to step into the unknown anyway. Which brings me back to my own story, that cold cup of tea, and the feeling of needing to take a nap, cry, wonder, and wrestle some more. And knowing that—despite this very real feeling—I am not alone. Like so many storytellers before me, I am exactly where I am meant to be.