SavvyBlogWriting Life

My Life in Stories by Joan Heartwell

I went to an energy healer once about twenty years ago because someone had wronged me, and I could not seem to lift myself above my anger. I thought I would get to tell the healer all the gruesome details about what happened, but she didn’t want to hear them. She said, “That’s your story; it’s not you. I’ll be healing you. If you want to change your story, you’ll have to do that yourself.” I didn’t say so, but I was thinking, What do you mean, that’s not me? Of course it’s me! I had to live through it, and now I own it! It’s mine! But in truth, I knew what she meant. She was referring to the me that I glimpse occasionally when I’m meditating, the me that is part of the one that is all of us. Instead of listening to my rant regarding the me that is two parts flesh and three parts ego, she had me turn in circles, so she could scope out my aura from all angles. Then, she had me lie on the healing table. (When I got up an hour later, my anger was gone! But that’s another story.)

Her remarks about stories not really belonging to us, I’m certain, were not meant to suggest that stories don’t have a place in our lives. Stories are crucial to living. My life has been all stories, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I discovered the thrill of making up stories when I was six or seven, though I didn’t bother writing them down back then. I had paper dolls, and since I liked to draw, I could make more paper dolls when I needed a larger community to work out a more complex theme. My paper dolls lived in shoe boxes outfitted with toasters and lamps cut out from my mother’s Green Stamp catalogs. Their stories were like soap operas, with them falling in love, falling out of love, celebrating surprises, despairing over snubs … nothing out of the ordinary.

When I got a little older (ten, eleven, twelve) I stopped using paper dolls to work out stories. Mostly, I would do fiction in my head at night as I lay in bed. I hated going to sleep back then; I didn’t see the point. So, I put my time to good use. Back in the paper doll days I had to be an omniscient narrator, because I couldn’t very well be a paper doll. But once I got to doing the stories in my head, I could be one of the characters. In my preteen stories, I was a beautiful mermaid, swimming in a lagoon awaiting the arrival of Peter Pan; I was a beautiful Native American princess protected by handsome philosophical men on horses; I was a high wire/trapeze artist working in a circus, swinging with other nimble persons. I would stay on a detail until I could see it, forcing my imagination to “concentrate, concentrate” until I could see the bad guys coming up over the hill with their rifles or feel the cold metal of the trapeze bar in my white-knuckled grip. If I focused enough setting the scene, it might still exist the next night, and I could just walk on in with the other characters and start where we left off. But, sometimes details slipped away and had to be reconstructed. And there were times when I simply fell asleep before I could get to the most important part of the story, the scene all the details were meant to support in the first place.

It worked out well that I liked to make up stories because I spent a lot of time alone. My only sibling (until my sister came along when I was ten) was my brother, and he was “retarded,” as we said back then. I loved him dearly, but I couldn’t play with him because he didn’t always “know how to play nice.” I was younger and smaller, and I had to protect myself. I had friends, but my mother was strict and I didn’t get to see them as much as I would have liked. Nor did we have money to send me to dance classes or piano lessons. So I became creative. Maybe I would have been creative anyway. I don’t know. I drew; I played guitar; I made up songs; I put on plays. When I was with my friends, we played kick-ball, stick-ball, hide-and-go-seek, hula hoops, tag, jump rope, and pick-up-sticks. When I was alone, I lived in my head.

By the time I was a teen I saw the value of putting my stories on paper. I spent so much time at night going over and over what someone said to me that day and what I said back—or, more often, failed to say back—that there was not enough time anymore to make up stories in bed. By then, I was writing poetry, mostly about boys I liked and boys who were breaking my heart. But there were a few more interesting themes now and then too. I remember writing one long poem about my mother and all the sacrifices she had to make to take such good care of my brother. Over the years, when I would get so angry at her, the lines to that poem would come back to me and help me to remember a time when I saw her in a different way. Working with pen and paper turned out to be much more fun than I could have imagined at an earlier age. I did not mind rewriting and polishing. And if I could bring a story better to life by embellishing the truth just a bit, so be it. The story was the thing.

When I was in my early twenties, I decided I would make my living as a novelist. I started out writing short stories, and a few got published, but it took until I was in my thirties for me to write my first publishable novel. By then, I had figured out that only a small percentage of fiction writers actually make a living writing novels, and it was unlikely that I was going to be one of them. So while I went on writing fiction for the pleasure of it, I also continued to seek out jobs where I would be called on to write at least some of the time…copy in an ad agency, newsletters and press releases for a PR agency, resumes for a job coaching outfit, etc. Once, when I was approaching forty, a man asked me to ghostwrite his true story of being misidentified, imprisoned and tortured in a foreign country. That was when I learned that I loved ghostwriting, and I have ghostwritten several other books since.

I have had four novels published over the years, and now I have a memoir coming out in September and a fifth novel coming out in 2014. And I am just finishing a sixth novel. I’ve gotten a some advances and won a few awards, but if you put all the money I’ve made with my own writing projects together, there wouldn’t be enough to buy a new used car. The money I’ve made working as a pen for hire, however, has enabled me to pay a lifetime’s worth of bills and put two children through college. What I love about writing is the process. It doesn’t matter so much whether it is my own story or your story being created. The blank sheet of paper (well, the blank Word doc) represents pure potential. It makes me want to dig in and get started. I’m sure it’s the same feeling dancers get when they walk into a huge mirrored space with a hardwood floor.

Memoir writing is especially interesting because as you write you get to acknowledge the mistakes you made in your life and forgive yourself, and you also get to celebrate the things you got right. And once the memoir is done, somehow you understand that it is just another story, and you can let it go. My memoir is about things that happened to me, even things that shaped me, but those things are not who I am at the core. That is the lesson I’ve learned over the years.

The other day I hooked up with Betty, a woman I had not seen or talked to since high school and had not hung out with since we were sixteen. She was coming into town to see some family, and I picked her up at the airport. We had lunch before her family came to get her. Back when we were kids she was a beautiful, popular cheerleader who exuded poise and confidence socially and academically; I always assumed she had to come from a perfect family. How did I know how a perfect family behaved? We all did, because we all watched “The Donna Reed Show,” “Father’s Knows Best,” “Ozzie and Harriet,” and “Leave it to Beaver.” Shows like that, about loving families that worked out ideal solutions without ever raising their voices, were a stark contrast to what went on in my house. Same for my Betty, it turned out. We weren’t even out of the airport before she told me that her mother had been an alcoholic and her father had been having an affair the whole time she lived home. She hardly ever saw him. She had basically raised herself. She did a damn good job.

Hers was a story she never would have shared when we were kids. You didn’t tell people stuff like that back then for fear that it might put them off. There was shame inherent in not having a perfect family, so you kept to yourself. Whatever happened behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors. If you were a survivor like Betty was, once you came out of the house you went beaming into the street to find your friends and have as much fun as was possible before you had to go back in again.

I told Betty the short version of my story too. By the time we got to the restaurant, we were on to other things. Your story, my story, in the end it’s all the same. Throw them all in a pot and mix them around and pull out a new one. It still won’t be you. But sharing stories, telling them and listening to them over the course of a lifetime, is a satisfying endeavor that leads ultimately to some kind of understanding about human nature, which leads to other good things. I consider it an honor to have lived my life in stories—even if they aren’t really mine.

Joan Heartwell is the author of the memoir Hamster Island, which will be published by Twilight Times Books in September 2013 and can be preordered. She has also authored several novels under another name. Visit her website.


Hamster Island is Heartwell’s story of growing up ordinary in family that embodied dysfunction. Her childlike shame for her special needs siblings is balanced by a fierce love that, occasionally, enabled her to shed her diffidence and perform extraordinary feats of plunk and valor. Funny and heartbreaking simultaneously, Hamster Island is a coming-of-age in the tradition of such darkly comic memoirs as Mary Karr’s The Liars Club and Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors; it delights while exploring issues of identity, transformation, and responsibility.

As a child Angel Leigh was quite often found curled up with her nose buried in a book. By her teen years, she was writing as much as she was reading. ...