Consider for a moment that your story is an important one and that you’re the only one who can tell it. For some people, this is the first step to finally being able to sit down and write. In over a decade of teaching writing, I’ve discovered that whatever the excuse, the main reason people don’t write their stories is that they don’t truly believe they’re worthy of the time and effort it takes to write them.
I used to struggle with this too. Life can get so busy. There’s so much to do that sometimes it felt indulgent and silly to spend time writing. People often didn’t respect my writing time. They considered me to be “free” during those hours that I wasn’t doing paid work. A couple of people voiced concerns that I was so dedicated to my writing and unrealistically hopeful about what would come of it. But a voice within me was stronger than any of the voices outside, and it told me to write.
Sometimes when I wrote it felt like my soul was on fire and sometimes I felt like I was pushing a cow uphill. But I wrote because that’s what I’d decided I was going to do, and I wasn’t going to let my inner critic get the best of me. When I finished writing Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah’s Wife, I was actually sad that I wouldn’t get to hang out with Noah and the gang anymore. My writing time had become a sacred refuge and I felt a little lost without it. And so I wrote Esther, the story of an orphan who becomes queen of Persia and risks her life to save her people. Both books ended up being published by the Simon & Schuster imprint Howard Books, but even if they’d never been published, I’d still be glad I wrote them.
My hope is that other people will come to value and even enjoy writing. When my students bring up the names of great writers, names we all know, and ask questions such as Why should I write, I’m not Toni Morrison? I tell them, Just as you can’t tell Toni Morrison’s story (or Margaret Atwood’s, or Maya Angelou’s, or Louise Erdrich’s), neither can she tell yours.
This is the message I want to give you: Only you have fully experienced your own struggles. Only you know how you continue to struggle or how you’ve overcome your struggles, or both. Your story will help someone else find their way, or get through something they think is unbearable, or simply escape from real life for a little while.
The story I wished to tell in first my novel is the story of how some of the things that I thought marked me as ugly or unworthy in some way—my struggles with anxiety, depression and eventually addiction—ended up saving me. In Sinners and the Sea: the Untold Story of Noah’s Wife, I convey this message by giving the narrator a mark upon her forehead that is seen as the mark of a demon. Because of this mark she is considered unmarriageable and her life is very hard. But then along comes Noah, a man who knows the mark is not that of a demon. He looks at what’s beneath the surface of her skin and sees a good woman. Without the narrator’s mark, she would not have been married to Noah, she would have been married to one of the other men her father tried to get for her, men who drowned along with their wives and children when the flood came. Because she ends up being Noah’s wife, she and the sons she has with Noah get to be on the ark. She eventually realizes that her mark has saved her.
Telling my story helped me realize that I’m grateful to my struggles. They’ve brought me to the place I’m at today, which is a place of gratitude and self-forgiveness. On June 21st, the paperback of Esther came out. I spent three years researching and writing it, and I never thought I’d finish it. But I did, and so I know I can do things I didn’t think possible.
I know that telling your story will help you, too, perhaps in ways you can’t even imagine.
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