Tag-Archive for » nonfiction «

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015 | Author:

I don’t see very many writers who even try to write about the hard things, so the fact that I do it at all seems to set me apart somewhat. The writers that do, do it incredibly, and I learn from them regularly.

But that’s something I often hear as feedback: You write so raw, your words are vulnerable. Some people ask, even, “How do you write so candidly?”

The answer is that I stopped writing for you.

I put the words out there for you, but I write them for myself to read. There are whole folders of word documents and journals (literally, journals – plural and full) that will never reach your eyes. They don’t need to. I was the only one who needed to read them.

Almost exactly three years ago now, I was out of college and had been for a year. School was starting up again as we made our way into fall, and I was nostalgic for that “I’m about to learn new things” time right at the beginning when classes are fresh and assignments are only on syllabi not in your calendar yet.

I bought a book of memoir writing prompts called “Old Friend From Far Away,” and I resolved to work my way diligently through the book to keep me writing — a year out of college had gotten me out of practice.

I bought a new journal and pen, and started in on the book’s prompts, working for the suggested “write on _____ for 10 minutes,” and good stuff was starting to come forth on the first couple prompts.

Then, about two weeks later I was at the eleventh prompt, and some of the prompts, like that one, have a chapter that goes with it to help you learn and become a better writer as well.

The prompt was to write about what you don’t remember. I read the chapter and knew that I had many dark parts of life that I’d rather not remember, so I wrote about all of them except the big one, the darkest one, the secret one that I thought I’d carry to my grave.

I wrote things like “I don’t remember Julie before she was tired and angry. I don’t remember the smell of the hospital or the way the doctor looked… I don’t remember the day after the day after the worst day… I don’t remember what —— looked like the last day I saw her. It was the day of high school graduation and she had a black eye from her dad, and her mom wanted her to move in with her boyfriend…”

I was just grasping for straws that sounded true and vulnerable while I danced around the real thing I didn’t want to remember.

I swallowed my own B.S. for one day and went on to the next prompt and wrote about it. But when I went back the day after that, I couldn’t swallow it anymore. The chapter on “I don’t remember” said this:

“Worry later about your fears — what your mother, brother, partner, co-workers, father, priest, even your angel will think. For now get it out on the page. Discover what you are so fiercely hiding and not remembering or blanking out on…

If what you write is frightening to you, tear it up, burn it, after you are done.

Then write it again. Destroy it.

Then write it again. And chew it up and swallow.

Build a tolerance for what you cannot bear.

This is the beginning: to let out what you have held hidden. Otherwise you will always be writing around your secrets, like the elephant no one notices in the living room. Get it out and down on the page. If you don’t, you’ll keep tripping over it.”

Those words haunted me and I knew they were right. One day of pretending they weren’t was too much. But I also felt like the risk was too great. I couldn’t write it even if I burned it. And if I didn’t write it, I’d keep tripping over it.

So that was the day I stopped writing.

It was four months later that my secret was exposed. In the midst of the shock and trauma, in a quiet moment, the thought came to me like a fatal silver lining — “Well, I guess I can write again, because now I can write about it.

I didn’t write about it publicly for a year. Even then it was in very vague terms so that people who knew would know what I was talking about, and people who didn’t know my story could just know that I’d gone through severe life altering events and knew the struggle of starting over.

It was over two years when I started to tell that story for real this spring. But in the meantime, I’ve been writing about it for myself with the candor that my previous life never afforded me. And as I’ve practiced being honest with myself, I find myself sometimes reading a piece I’ve written and thinking, this might have value to share with the world. They can have this one.

That’s how I write so candidly about the ugly, hard stuff of life. I’m not writing for you. I’m practicing being honest with myself, and sometimes I let the world peak in.

There’s a Hemingway quote I found last year that I hold close to my chest and my desk: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

If it hurts, I write hard and clear. Sometimes I still have to burn it. Then I write it again. I’m practicing putting my pain on the page. For me, and sometimes for you, too.

If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

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Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015 | Author:

Note: The juicy stuff you might want to gossip about or think about or message me about or just generally know starts at the break part-way down this page. If you’re short on time, just start there. I know this is a longer post and your time and attention are limited. 

Second Note: Feel free to share this with anyone who might be interested or who it may help. 

I’ve been putting off this blog post for a long time now. While I do take pains to make myself vulnerable here as I sort through the crap of my internal and external life, I’ve been beating around the bush now for over a year, and I was just outright selective and silent about this before then.

But this is the thing: I’m about to start a story project, where I’m asking people not just to trust me with their stories, but to pay me to write their stories for them (see posts in the next few weeks for more info about the story project — I’m really excited to share it with you guys!).

And in anticipation of that I’ve been doing a lot of research and prep work on writing real, true stories of real life people and I keep running up against this problem: How do I convince people that those ugly, dirty, shameful, painful parts of their story are truly an important part? That’s it’s worth the pain of digging up the past to talk about it?

People are quick to want me to write about their accomplishments or their fun adventures — which we need, too — but it’s harder to get people to be honest and open about those painful parts. If I’ve learned anything in writing and reading non-fiction, though, it’s this: The painful parts are the most powerful parts. 

They have power to connect with the broken, painful places inside the readers. They’re the moments when I read them, that I as a reader take sharp breaths in because, there before my eyes, I see that someone else knows pain like I know it. I know that I’m not the only one. That I’m not alone.

And that is the most powerful message I’ve ever read or ever written.

So all that to say, I have a story I haven’t put out there in writing yet. It’s the painful, shameful part of my story. And it’s not going to just be one blog post. But this post can usher in the era of freedom that I’m choosing to be ready for. I’m ready to start letting my story breathe on paper (or screens as it may be), not just in unrecorded moments in hushed tones at cafes and on couches in which I’ve previously chosen to share it.

So this is me, doing what I’m going to ask others to do. This is me letting the pain hit the page. Letting the image you have of me as a person be shaped as it may be by the truth, for better or worse. Because overall, I don’t think it matters what you think of me. I think it matters how my story makes you feel. And if it makes one person feel like they’re not alone, then it’s worth it. Consider this an era for that as well.


I’ve written vague things here before about “I lost everything.” About my distrust of people and of the church. And about deep grief. This is what happened.

1999

The first time I officially saw him, he was on the lower stage at the front of our sanctuary. (I assume this, I don’t actually remember it, but I’ve seen the pictures). It was his wedding day, and I was 9 years old.

The first time I technically saw him up close was the next day when they showed up at Carl’s Jr. for lunch in the next town over from ours. I was next to him at the fountain drinks and went back to my table to ask my mom, “Do we know those people?” pointing to their table.  “They were the ones who got married yesterday,” she said. And we awkwardly said “Hi” on our way out to the car, having committed the grave sin of seeing someone you know while they’re on their honeymoon.

January 6, 2013

The last time I officially saw him, he was standing on that same lower stage at the front of the same church sanctuary.

He got up in front of a crowd and read a confession and apology he’d written ahead of time. The crowd was our 900 person church. He was the pastor in charge of all of the ministries of the church. The confession was about how he’d been “inappropriately involved” with me for “a while now.” The apology was to his wife, his family, my family, and the church.

He sat on a stool and cried while he read it. Something I’d never seen him do before.

I sat in the congregation, tears and snot making a steady flow down my face while he spoke, and while our main Pastor (different man, just to be clear) took over and read an apology I’d written ahead of time. He’d had the foresight to not allow me to deliver it myself — something I’m endlessly grateful for now.

It felt like hell. Actual, living hell. I so wish there was a less cliche way to convey that. But those are the only words I’ve come up with in the two years since then. Hell. It-would-be-better-if-I-could-just-burn-to-death-and-let-this-end Hell.

This was my deepest darkest secret that had held me captive for years and years, and it had just been told to 900 people, including everyone I’d ever been close with. I thought in a surreal moment somewhere in one of those two church services that morning, “I’ll never be as free as I am right now. I have no other secrets.” But of course, those thoughts came in between the hyperventilation and the crushing grief of seeing my entire world collapse around me, seeing the people I was closest to in life filled with so much pain and betrayal.

This pastor of ministries and I, we’d been fully-fledged “inappropriately involved” since a couple months after I turned 18. But our relationship had begun to be inappropriate in nature since I was 16 and he was my youth pastor.

Let me say it as delicately as I can while also being accurate — What was happening when I was 16-18 would’ve gotten him fired in a heart beat, but not arrested. What was happening when I was 18 until I was 23 when someone found out would’ve been cause for arrest had I not been of age. (Not that it’s any of your business, by the way. But there was enough misunderstanding and misinformation that I feel it’s valuable to at least be accurate as I air out my dirty laundry here.)

2 weeks later

The last time I technically saw him up close, it was in the next town over again. It was 2 weeks after our public confessions. I was in a store walking down the main aisle when all of the sudden he popped out of one of the side aisles directly in front of me. There was no turning around unseen. So I took a breath and proceeded. “Jo.” He said. I felt ice and panic stall my heart. “Hi,” I managed, meeker than I ever am.

“See you later,” he said with a harshness in his voice that I was more than familiar with. Then he spun his cart around and fled in the opposite direction the way you do when you’ve committed the grave sin of seeing the girl you’ve been inappropriate with for years once the secret has come out.

His tone was the same one I’d heard in countless drawn-out arguments we’d had over the years from which I always emerged feeling smaller, and slightly trampled on and disregarded. This time was no different.

It is the only time where I’ve spent significant moments in the vitamin aisle. And it is the only time I’ve cried in the presence of gummy calcium chews.  The supplements as my silent witnesses, tears and snot acknowledging the years of pain from that tone and that twisted relationship, I hoped he was wrong – that I would in fact never see him later.

And eventually, one day short of one year after what I’ve taken to calling “confession sunday,” I found myself unexpectedly forgiving him.

That story comes next time.

If you’d be willing to donate to support Stories By Jo: The Story Project where I will be writing people’s stories for them as I have done here for myself, please click the donate button below. Thank you so much for your support and for reading.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com