Saturday, May 28, 2011

Writing About Our Differences

Who hasn’t felt “different” at some time or other? For much of my life I thought I was the “different” one, the one who didn’t fit in. As time has passed, and especially as I’ve become hooked on reading memoir and teaching hundreds of people to write their own, I’ve discovered that this feeling is widespread, if not quite universal, and that it is not inherently bad.

I felt different from the day I began first grade and realized that all the other children knew somebody. In fact, most of them knew at least half the class. I had just moved to town and didn’t know a soul. I felt like I’d been dumped on a different planet. They played with each other at recess. Not only did I not know any of them, I had grown up in a neighborhood lacking other children and had no idea how to play with other kids, so I stood on the sidelines, watching and trying to figure out how recess worked. The differences continued to compound until in high school I became the 1960s equivalent of a Geek Girl. Ultimately I realized that these differences became the quirks that make me Me.

All things considered, my “differentness” has been minor compared to many others. For example, consider the case of John Elder Robison. He first crossed my radar on the Absolute Write Watercooler Forum's Memoir section two or three years ago when his first book, Look Me in the Eye had first been released. This memoir told his version of growing up in the highly dysfunctional family first introduced by John Elder’s brother Augusten Burroughs in his memoir Running With Scissors. Burroughs' memoir was seriously edgy and controversial, bristling with differences, but let’s stick with Robinson.

His story moved beyond the dysfunctional family, which he left at the age of sixteen to strike out on his own. He soon hooked up with the rock band KISS. He was responsible for all their onstage pyrotechnics, the flashy guitars and lots of other special effects. Rather predictably, that came to an end, and he moved on to other things, eventually becoming the owner of a successful auto dealership and a happily married husband and father.

Not until middle age did he learn the reason why he always felt so out-of-step: his brain was wired with the Aspberger’s diagram. Suddenly everything made sense to him. Look Me in the Eye tells of his pre-diagnosis experience. Since then he has written a second book, be different, to enlighten the world about what it’s like living with this condition and being “different.” The book’s video trailer found on its Amazon page is narrated by Robison, and gives a profound glance into deep differentness. It is also the source of profound hope. I strongly urge you to take a few minutes and watch it. You, like I, may want to read this book for more appreciation of the gifts that can come from being “different.”

But you don’t need to rely on reading someone else’s experience for that. Writing about your experience of being different can be profoundly revealing and uplifting for you. The stories could be uplifting and inspiring for others.

The best way I’ve found to reap a healthy harvest from these often distressing memories is to use the Silver Lining technique. Write about what happened, then add a section about the good things that resulted. You will surely find, as John Elder Robison and I have, that differences can be the seeds of  satisfaction and personal greatness.

Write now: think of a time when you felt out of step with your peers, family or the world and give the Silver Lining technique a test write. Keep digging until you find that silver lining.

Photo by Walt Stoneburner

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