I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about why I do things and the question of why I write is one I return to over and over again. For a long time, when someone would ask me this question (or when I would explore it myself), the answer would come, not in the form of words, but in a feeling. A standing-on-top-of-a-mountain feeling. Or a sitting-around-a-campfire feeling. Or a staring-up-into-a-perfectly-clear-night-sky feeling. I knew what the answer felt like but I hadn’t yet found the words to describe it.
Enter Brené Brown.
It was August 22, 2015. My mom and I had driven down to Nashville, Tennessee for Brené Brown’s Rising Strong day. I’d been a Brené fan for years, ever since a friend sent me a link to her TED talk on the power of vulnerability. (And of its tens of millions of views, only about half of those are mine.)
Those TED talks of hers and her book Daring Greatly became my traveling companions through a really dark time in my life. Her words inspired me so much I wrote some of them out on index cards and stuck them around my house. But even though I’d read them over and over again and sought them out when I didn’t know how else to make it through, it wasn’t her words exactly that were pulling me forward. It was that, in reading her words, I was able to find a path through the darkness. Her words were the flashlight, but I was taking the steps.
When I think back three years ago to Rising Strong day in Nashville, I can’t actually remember anything specific that Brené said. What I do remember is being there with her, sharing the same physical space with this person whose words had become so important to me.
After her talk that morning, every single attendee had the opportunity to meet Brené for a moment and then have their picture taken with her. As I stood in line getting closer and closer, I tried to think of something to say—anything to express how grateful I was for her words, anything to let her know how much it all meant to me. But at that moment, I’d somehow lost all of my sentence-putting-together capabilities.
Finally, it was my turn. I walked the ten steps up to where she was standing in front of the shelves of Rising Strong books with no plan of what I was going to say (and probably a weird look on my face). When I got there, I said the only thing I could think of—can I give you a hug?
She said yes.
So, I gave her a hug, someone snapped a photo, and it was over. I’d said nothing profound, nothing to express the gratitude I felt, nothing she’d remember. But that was okay because I got to hug her. (I hugged Brené!) I spent the rest of the day buzzing.
Back in our hotel room, my mom and I talked late into the night. We finally agreed that if we didn’t get some sleep, we’d never be able to stay awake for the long drive home the next day. But I’m not the kind of person who can just shut off. I knew it’d be hours before I actually fell asleep. So, I opened the bag of goodies they’d given us at the beginning of the day and pulled out the most recent copy of O, The Oprah Magazine.
My mom used to subscribe to O, and every time I read it, I would always begin at the end with Oprah’s “What I Know for Sure” section. So, when I opened the magazine all those years later, that’s exactly where I started. This month Oprah wrote about the power of storytelling, and her article ended with this gorgeous sentence:
“That’s the power of words—of a story told so well, you’re enlarged by its meaning.”
You know that experience of reading something for the first time but feeling like you’ve always known it? In Oprah’s words, I finally found the perfect way to describe what I’d been feeling all these years.
That standing-on-top-of-a-mountain feeling I described earlier—that’s the power in the words. The sitting-around-a-campfire feeling—that’s the act of actually telling the story, forging a connection between writer and reader. And the staring-up-into-a-perfectly-clear-night-sky feeling—well, if you’ve ever spent time with the stars, you know how affecting an experience that can be. At first, it feels like the stars are all the way up there and you’re all the way down here. But lie there for a while, and the distance begins to fade. This thing that felt so separate and far away suddenly becomes a part of you. Your world is expanded, and you are enlarged.
To me, the idea of being enlarged doesn’t mean you’re changed exactly. It does, however, mean that you’re affected. Consider a plate of crepes, maybe with some cherries rolled up inside. And what fruit crepe is complete without powdered sugar? So, we sprinkle on a light dusting. If the crepes are hot, the powdered sugar will probably melt right into them and disappear. It’s still there, of course, you just can’t see it. Each time we have an experience that enlarges us, it’s sort of like a light dusting of sugar. Keep sprinkling, though, and the crepes eventually look like a scene out of Rudolph. You haven’t changed what’s under the sugar—the crepes are still the same as they were before. They just look (and taste) a little different.
This is exactly what happened to me all those years ago when I read and reread Daring Greatly. I was still the same Mandy with the same worries and problems. But in reading Brené’s books and listening to her speak, the world began to look (and feel) a little different—less scary and more hopeful. Her words held such power for me. Could my words hold that same power?
Now don’t think I’m comparing myself to Brené Brown here. Actually, no. Please do think that. Because I kind of am. I was enlarged by her words. Maybe someone could be enlarged by mine.
I want to create that potential. That is why I write.
Claiming purpose is not easy or comfortable. Those last two paragraphs rip something open inside me, releasing that familiar deluge of doubt. Are you sure you want to say that? Seriously? Comparing yourself to Brené Brown? What are people going to think? What if no one understands what you’re trying to say? Or what if they think it’s all too heavy? Or too inconsequential? Or not very good? And what if you’ve said all this about why you write and your writing ends up affecting no one ever?
But I have to try, right?
What if Brené hadn’t tried? I know from reading her work and listening to her speak that there was this part of her that wanted to find a way to stay small, probably the same part that was screaming her own version of the doubts above. And what if she’d listened to those doubts?
What if any of us listen to them? It’s not just writers who have the power to enlarge us. Yes, there’s power in a story so well told. And in an idea so well explained. And in a thought so well formed.
But what of music so well played?
Or of a scene so well acted?
A picture so well drawn.
A game so well designed.
A product so well constructed.
A lesson so well taught.
We all have this power to enlarge one another by what we’re willing to create, but we must also be willing to share.
And so, I write—the truest and realest and bravest words I can. Then, I put them out into the world. Maybe no one will ever read them. Maybe they’ll sit on shelves and on servers, growing dusty and outdated and eventually find their way into a recycling bin (either physical or virtual).
Or maybe someday, someone will come along and see my book or stumble across one of these essays. And maybe, if they like the cover or the featured image or the first line, they’ll sit down and start reading. And if I’ve told the story well enough and they discover meaning in my words, they’ll find themselves enlarged, just as I have—from reading the words of so many others.