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Notes on not telling a story

“Could I share something sacred with you?” the woman asks, pulling a small, folded stack of papers out of her purse.

I contemplate my options. “No” is not among them. She is already pressing the papers into my hand.


Ten minutes ago, I was wrapping up a workshop. Five minutes ago, she approached me to tell me about her confusion, her fear, her goals,  her “I’ve got to make this work or my five kids won’t eat” job.

And now, she has pressed her life story into my hands, her most sacred thing, and asked me to read it.


What’s in there is terrible.

There is abandonment- literal, not metaphorical- and abuse, the kind of abuse you can’t imagine living through, the kind you’d find hard to invent even in your primitive brain. There is pregnancy and forced abortion and marriage without love and it is all written in a script that itself feels painful.

I read it straight through and I don’t look up once and as I’m approaching the end, for the whole last paragraph I’m anxious. What can I possibly say to her other than, “Thank you. Thank you for trusting me enough to share this.”

And so that is what I say.


What I’m thinking is, “This would make a great story.”

The “this” is her story, our exchange, all of it.

I can’t stop the narration that’s already unscrolling itself; this is the writer’s strange gift and burden: the inability to turn off the narrative switch.

I feel guilty about this, for as she’s talking, elaborating on what was written on the paper, I am listening but I am also making mental notes, turning her story into a story. Into my story, one I’ve appropriated as a purveyor of other people’s stories … not to sell, necessarily, but to tell, one to tell to evoke a response. One to tell because it is different and, especially, because it is real and I am tired of so many unreal stories in the world.


The whole experience leaves me spooked. 

I can tell she doesn’t want to leave–we are sitting in my hotel room now– and I don’t feel I can ask her to go, so we are sitting together in an awkward silence. I would like to know how she feels–is there a relief in sharing her story?– and I consider, briefly,  asking her if I can take her story from here and run with it, put it out into the world, with or without her name attached to it, as she wishes, because something about it feels urgent and important.

But I don’t.

And I don’t tell her story until now, and even now only in the most partial of ways, because what I am struggling with, months on, is what right we have to tell others’ stories, for what purpose and to what end.


12 responses »

  1. This really strikes a note. I’ve been grappling recently with questions of whether an dunder what circumstances it is alright to appropriate people’s stories. Often not even literal, printed-and-written-by-them stories, but the experiences they share with me that impact so profoundly.

    On the one hand, the stories are theirs in a way. Won with pain and tears and courage. On the other, what if me telling part of it, or my experiences of learning it, meant that it could get a wider voice. That it might get wings and finally fly, in a manner of metaphorically speaking. And if we could never speak to, or of, others’ stories, there would be terribly little to write about the human condition that wasn’t pure narcissism.

    I don’t have an answer. I don’t even feel close. It feels like am still uncovering the questions.:/

    • Rich-

      Just based on your writing that I’ve read lately, you’ve been grappling with the issue in a really meaningful way. In the particular case of this woman, there were a few different issues at play, which I’m going to riff on here in no particular order:

      1. What were the implications for her if I told this story without her permission (or with it- which is different still)? The country and community in question is a small one, where everyone more or less really does know everyone. What kinds of real life harm might telling this story cause for her, particularly if her real name was attached to it? Even if she thought it was a good idea, can *she* even imagine all the possible harm that might come to her if the story was told in a public forum?

      2. What, besides telling her story, might actually help her more? This question reminds me of the piece you wrote recently about promises made while traveling. Because, like you, I’ve had experiences where I’ve unintentionally let people down when I made a well-intentioned promise I didn’t or couldn’t keep once I got home, I’ve become very cautious about making promises of any sort. But our exchange/interaction began because she was a participant in a business workshop I was running. She is an entrepreneur with exceptionally limited–virtually non-existent–resources. If she makes it, she will truly, truly be a success story. Could doing something other than telling her story help her more– or telling a different story about her (her entrepreneurial spirit, say) help her more?

      3. Is her story true? I hate even raising this question, but as a responsible writer, it’s one I have to raise. If we’re going to take the liberty of retelling someone else’s story, and when that story involves allegations about people and events who themselves have not had a say in the telling of that story, what is our obligation to verify the facts of that story? I don’t have an answer, but I think I have to consider the question.

      • I want to write a fuller response when I have the time to, but I absolutely agree with your questions here. And they are vexing ones.

        On a semi-related note, I just put a piece up on Matador that might interest you in this regard (

        In the wake of the Mac McClelland article about Haitan PTSD and the debate it brought about, there were some interesting perspectives being shared on the ethics of telling other people’s stories (particularly traumatic ones). It strikes me that in some cases, travel writers might do well to hold themselves to such standards, rather than treating the telling of others’ stories as a responsibility-free creative enterprise.

  2. What a powerful experience! I’ve found that the stories of people who have been through hell are as just as much stories of heartbreak and misery as they are messages of hope and inspiration–that the person sitting in front of me didn’t just live to tell about it, but chose to tell about it (well in my case it was to get legal aid). If every refugee wrote a memoir, our international policies would be very different.

    • Hope-

      Definitely. I suppose my main musing about this particular situation, which was a relatively brief encounter, was what the full spectrum of implications of telling her story might be. Am going to elaborate on that a bit more in response to Rich’s comment below.

  3. Interesting piece, Julie. And yes, I feel exactly what you mean. And Richard, you subsequently expressed exactly my thoughts on this.

    Is getting that wider audience always a good thing? Remember that story in the US (don’t remember exact details) about a poor, uneducated (?) man deciding to raise his child after the mother had died/disappeared. He “went back to school, worked 2 jobs and raised a child” kind of story. So different than all others because here it was a father, not a mother doing this for a child. And so a journalist heard – and spread the word. Snowball effect. Money came pouring in to support this guy. Suddenly he could buy a car. Friends got jealous. Killed in in cold blood in order to steal the car…

  4. Love the discussion going on here. Reminds of what we talked about in the Matador U reading group when we were working the Afghanistan readings. It really is so much more nuanced than the “go out and get the story” attitude that we’re often encouraged to embrace.

  5. Thanks for sharing… and sparking my thoughts. When I was a beginning writer, I tried to write others’ stories. I was – and continue to be – approached by people who sought me, dare I say, as almost a savior to craft their tale. I have learned along the way that, if the story is to be authentic, it needs to be my own.

    Sure, I can write another’s story as a reporter, and I do so for news publications. There is value in letting others know the needs of the subject of the piece. But typically the story I am asked to write is from someone who needs to tell the story in their owns words. They need the healing power of writing it down. By writing their story, am I taking away that chance for healing?

    By agreeing to write someone else’s story, the burden is sometimes too heavy. Papertrail13, you seem to understand that when you say, …”I’ve had experiences where I’ve unintentionally let people down when I made a well-intentioned promise I didn’t or couldn’t keep once I got home…”

  6. Is there a difference between between hearing a story and writing about it as straight journalistic reporting, and taking that same story and it weaving into your own writing? Maybe crafting a narrative essay where the story is just a part of the whole experience you are writing about?

    Richard says it well when he writes “And if we could never speak to, or of, others’ stories, there would be terribly little to write about the human condition that wasn’t pure narcissism.”

    Julie did she ask you to write her story? Sometimes the teller lifts her burden just in the sharing. You heard her story and were moved enough to want to write about it. And it bothered you enough that you did write about it –– the bare bones of the story –– posed as a question: should you write the story or not?

    As travel writers all our writing is non-fiction. But doesn’t the best travel writing move from the particular to the universal? And if you write her story as you heard it what is to prevent her from writing the story herself, if she is so inclined?


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