Photo © Jennifer Waddell

The most important thing writing has taught me is this: the more vulnerable you allow yourself to be, the stronger you become. It sounds counter-intuitive, I know. It sounds like bullshit. Here’s the thing: you can’t change the past, but if you can face it, both the present and the future will shift. And it’s a hell of a lot easier than wasting your energy keeping something underground. When you drag the shameful thing out of the dark, its power lessens. It is finite. It has edges. You look at it in the light, and in the light you write it down, and in the writing you may find a way to forgive yourself, and in the telling you grow stronger because you have made something new out of it, you have given it shape and meaning.

So when you write about your life, don’t skip over the hard parts. What would be the point? Who would you be fooling? Yourself? Oh please. I learned this the hard way, so stricken with shame that I needed to find a way out. My husband was hit by a car, and he was left with a traumatic brain injury so severe he could not live at home. He was taken to a facility in upstate New York. Once a week I drove up to see him, but it felt so infrequent and so short were the visits that I sold my apartment in the city and bought a house nearby and slowly I began to put a life together. I made new friends, I had a yard where my dogs could run free, I was writing and teaching. Sometimes I was able to bring my husband home for an afternoon. I began to love my new life. But we have a habit of sabotaging ourselves, especially when things are going well, and one day I asked myself if I could wave a wand and change the past, if I could erase my husband’s tragic accident, would I? of course I would, wouldn’t I? But I hesitated, and what followed was a terrible confusion of sorrow and shame—this new life had been born of my husband’s tragedy.

I needed to write about that shame, hoping for some kind of forgiveness, hoping for clarity, but it was going nowhere. So I did what I always do when confronted by something I can’t put to rest, can’t find words for, can’t bear to know about myself. I took down my Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, because sometimes the DNA of a word answers a question you didn’t know to ask. I looked up shame, and I looked up guilt, but found nothing to enlighten me. Finally I looked up acceptance.  And among the words that acceptance evolved from is one that meant “a thread used in weaving.” And in that moment my whole life changed. I understood. Acceptance. Maybe the thread frays, maybe it breaks, but you have to weave it in and then you have to keep on weaving.

Some years later a woman wrote to tell me she had spent a lifetime overwhelmed by guilt over something she had either done or failed to do, until she came across what I’d written. “I used to feel like the worst person on earth,” she wrote, “and now I just feel human.”  Tell the hard truths, clear your vision, be of use.
Abigail Thomas has four children, twelve grandchildren and one great grandchild. She also has two old dogs and a high school education. Her books include Safekeeping; A Three Dog Life; What Comes Next and How To Like It. She celebrates her 80th birthday this year.