One of the big lessons I learned as a writer, a storyteller, was to think small. Not small as insignificant, or unimportant, but rather to see the details, observe the color of the fabric on the upholstered sofa, the light glinting through the glade of trees, the accented lilt of language, all details that could tell you the place and time and sometimes the point of the story.
Think of movies or great books—the writer or director never sums up the action, they lay it out for you in bits, like crumbs in the forest that take you to the point. It is all about details.
Even in the most positive of recovery stories, there is at the edges a great sense of loss. Loss of ourselves, our purpose, our opportunity … and of course the loss we inflicted on others. Life fades or worse, goes black. What bleeds out of the picture are the wondrous details, the memories of what has been good in our lives. We lose the plot of our own story.
But is rediscovery possible? Is that part of the path back? I think so.
I teach writing as a recovery tool, to offer the power of storytelling as a way to write yourself back into your story. The work starts with writing exercises, prompts.
Sometimes very simple; describe the best day you remember; what makes you laugh; where in the world do you feel at home. Simple, yes, and maybe obvious, but a hard assignment when you are at your lowest point. I have met teens in recovery that, when asked to recount a “best” day in life, say they have pretty slim pickings “I have no good stories to tell.” I sometimes get the same dismiss from older people, “My best days are over, my memories are ruined.” As students, they might give me a polite smile but just as likely a frown, and sometimes real resentment if they feel patronized. I don’t blame them. But I know everybody has worthy moments, just sometimes it takes questions that are less direct, and maybe thinking that is more abstract. What amazes you. What is the color of beautiful? You are in a car, where are you going? There do not have to be literal answers—but in order to give even half answers you have to draw on your memories, your story.
I was very fortunate recently to see James Taylor, a singer and songwriter dogged by depression and addiction, perform in Memphis, Tennessee. He sang a song about a dark time in his very early 20’s when his father came to rescue him in New York in a station wagon and take him back home to North Carolina. Entitled Jump Up Beside Me, part of the chorus goes;
“We follow this road till we reach the sea, jump up behind me. We’ll catch the tide and set old Dan free, jump up behind me.”
The lyrics say nothing specific about the journey home, but you can recognized the emotional memories. In another part of the song his references are clearer:
“Felt like a festival and it felt like a Christmas morning, Felt the darkness fall away even as the world was turning on.”
He tells a story of his own redemption, in his own way. I know, I know. If only we were all great songwriters, or artists or poets! But that’s not the point. It is only because of the specifics—emotional and literal—that you would ever believe the song, or be moved by it. It’s not the big picture that makes your life, it’s in the details. Recovery is all about discovery. Sometimes the tiniest detail can take us on a journey back, and to a way forward. That station wagon ride home. James Taylor observed and captured and owned his story. I don’t think that is beyond any of us.