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Diana M. Raab Headshot

The Power of Personal Stories

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When I was in grade school I wanted to be a writer and one of the first things my English teacher told me was that to be a good writer you must be a good reader. Since that day, I have been a lover of books and have some ever-lasting visual memories of my mother taking me to the library and coming home with a stack of books piled all the way up to my chin.

My preference has always been to read real stories written by real people doing real things. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "No matter where you begin, read anything for five hours a day and you will soon be knowing." My parents used to tell me that "knowledge is power," and after having survived World War II and having lost most of their possessions as a result, they believed that knowledge was something that could not be taken away from you.

While growing up and through my teen years, I devoured biographies. I enjoyed compelling stories about spiritual journeys and also about other teens adjusting to the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Later, when my daughter got mixed up in a bad crowd, I sought stories written by other parents to help me cope with raising a strong-minded and rebellious adolescent. I even wrote a few of my own stories on the subject. When faced with cancer, I read cancer survivor stories. All these stories helped me navigate difficult times. Reading and learning about people in similar situations helped me realize that I was not alone in my journey.

The ringing in of a new year is a good time to come to grips with what might have plagued us in the previous year. Journaling is a good way to do this, and another way is to read and hear the voices of others who have been in similar difficult situations. This was my impetus for compiling with co-editor, Jim Brown, my forthcoming anthology, Writers on The Edge: 22 Writers Discuss Dependency and Depression. As renowned author Jerry Stahl states in the foreword, "Open to any piece in this collection, and the scalding, unflinching, overwhelming truths within will shine light on places most people never look." In fact these are the places many people want to visit -- the dark places which are the most difficult to face. Many of us have experienced or at least been exposed to someone with an addiction or depression and the writers in this collection share their stories with honesty and candor. Some write as a cathartic exercise, while at the same time helping others through their own tenuous times. These short essays, confessions, or mini-memoirs share the author's emotional truth about their addiction. The stories offer hope and ideas and all have a positive slant discussing addictions such as drugs, alcohol, food, sex, love, and gambling.

Poet Chase Twichell in her essay, "Toys in the Attic," says, "A poem is a portrait of consciousness. It's a recording of the motions of a mind in time, a mind communicating to others the experience of its own consciousness. When I read or write a poem, I'm trying to open a window between my mind and the minds of others. Poetry is written for others. But it's also a study of the self, which is a private kind of work."

In discussing memoir, William Zinnser in his classic book, Inventing the Truth, says, "Memoir is how we make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us." In another book, Writing About Your Life, he beautifully states, "We come from a tribe of fallible people, prisoners of our own destructiveness, and we have endured to tell the story without judgment and to get on with our lives." The authors in Writers on the Edge do just that, whether they were involved in a twelve-step program or used writing as a healing modality -- they have all succeeded despite their demons, and lead productive lives.

Reading the stories of others can help you learn about yourself. Discoveries are made, memories are revealed and wisdom is shared. Memoir writers courageously face the issues of their pasts and they can serve as role models for all of us. Their stories can provide an understanding of the inner workings of different types of people. Sometimes hearing someone else's transformative story can inspire you to write your own, keeping in mind that the best writers allow the reader to formulate their own conclusion about the dark places that they or loved ones visit.