Forcing Myself to Share Oprah-Style

It was an axiom during my years as a working journalist: I must keep myself out of the story. Yet here I am, in my third decade as a professional writer, diving into the narrative nonfiction space. It’s a new world for me, one in which agents, editors, and writing instructors all tell me I have to put myself in my stories.

(Shudder.)

I started this blog a few months ago to help work that neglected writing muscle into shape. I also started a class last week at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for the same reason.

the author, telling other people's stories

(A side note — the class is heavy on memoir writing, and all of the other 12 students are female. Is this a sign we men are told not to see, or perhaps are congenitally incapable of seeing, inside of ourselves and then sharing what we see? I’ll leave that for others to debate.)

The first class started out a bit slow — do we really need the instructor to read the syllabus to us when it’s right in front of us? — but got interesting when she gave us in-class writing assignments. I was flummoxed with the last one — write a two-page life story.

For the last two months I’ve been in the process of building a full-time freelance writing business. I’ve written untold variations of my professional bio, for query letters, book proposals, my web site. But I realized the instructor wanted something a little different; she wanted a slice of who I really am. As much as I dislike writing professional bios, I at least have a comfort level there.

I took a stab at it, and decided to start with the fact that I grew up in the desert. I was surprised at where my pen took me. I learned a lot about myself in that fifteen minutes. It helped me understand a question a student had asked earlier, about how to write a memoir if you don’t know where the self-enlightenment message is leading. How can you not know where you are now? Well, turns out it’s easy.

As an exercise to force myself to share a bit more, I’ve decided to post my essay below. It is unedited, merely retyped from the ink version I wrote in class. If you do read it, and feel compelled to comment on it, please be kind.

My Life Story in Two Handwritten Pages

I’m a desert rat. I grew up in the Sonoran Desert outside Phoenix. I felt most free when there was open land in front of me and desert mountains breaking the horizon.

The Sonoran Desert

For the last 21 years I’ve been a fish out of water. A soul who thrives on solitude surrounded by people. A Type A who is most happy in a world of Type B’s, who is driven to A+ mode by the movers and shakers of Washington.

I long for an idealized life of memory, a life of lazy days spent under the summer sun, with little to do and much to dream about. In reality, I never had that life, and I escaped the possibility of it by moving East.

I have never gone back, but there is no “back” to go to.

Union Station, Washington, D.C.

For the last 12 years I’ve sought to create my own Type B life here in this Type A world. I’m creating a universe — of family, of friends, of professional colleagues — who have ambitions and aspirations, but who pursue that life in accordance with the knowledge of being interconnected with others in a larger world.

I encourage my wife to be everything she can be, in an atmosphere of love, happiness and support.

I strive to provide my children the opportunity to grow into themselves, to take their inherent goodness and build lives of peace and well-being.

South Mountain Park, Phoenix

I work each day to better myself, to be better to myself by being better to others. I work each day to learn something new, and to apply that knowledge in a constructive way.

I am a desert rat surrounded by a busy, bustling world. The serenity of a sunrise over a sea of saguaros is mine to build, in my mind and in my heart.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

24 Responses to “Forcing Myself to Share Oprah-Style”

  1. Hi Patrick-
    As someone from the East coast who dreams of moving to the desert, I’m a fish out of water too…maybe I would still be if I ever moved there. I have no roots. My goal is to stop fighting the fact that I feel misplaced and somehow embrace it.

    Thanks for sharing your story, I enjoy your blog posts and tweets very much.

    And kudos to you for exploring something out of your comfort zone, it will stretch you and enrich your life and writing in ways you weren’t expecting. Keep at it!

    • Susan, what a kind note! I must say, there is a lot to be said for the desert, especially in January. Didn’t ever find Arizona much fun in August, though.๐Ÿ™‚

      It’s important to be in the now and celebrate where you are and what you have, and it’s good you’ve set that as a goal. I also appreciate your support in my goal of exploring out of my comfort zone, I like your wording on that.

  2. I love your emphasis on the role of place in your life, Patrick. It is big in mine, too, except my story is reversed. I grew up 20 minutes from New York City where the largest open space was about a 1/2-acre woods where we’d build forts and explore. My grandparents spent their winters in Tucson, though, and my grandmother painted desert scenes. I remember looking at them as a child and thinking, “I want to live there.” I also was very struck by my mom’s slides from the Grand Canyon. Arizona became a beacon for me from the time I was about 5.

    I did eventually move to Flagstaff, Arizona but couldn’t make a living there at that time (mid-80s). For the last 18 years, I have lived in the high desert of western Colorado and spend a lot of time in lonely canyons in the redrock country of southern Utah. I’ve become a desert rat. And when I think about moving Back East to be closer to my elderly parents, what stops me is that connection to the desert. It is so powerful.

    So there…a little bit of my story in response to yours. And isn’t that the point of writing, to lead the reader to reflect on their own life? I’d say you were successful.๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks for that story, Sue. I’ve been tempted over the years to move to Colorado. A few years ago I did a loop around the state that included stops as diverse as Aspen, the Grand Canyon of the Gunnison, Salida, and Rocky Mountain National Park. A beautiful state with nice people; I overnighted in Boulder on my road trip last year.

      I’m glad you found a place to which you are connected. That’s important for your spirit and for your artistic muse. And I’m glad my writing succeeded in you reflecting on your own life. Yes, I’ll claim that as a success!

  3. Patrick I can certainly relate to much of this. It is time to slow down, reflect, be kind to myself, be with people more, enjoy life. Play more, live life to the fullest. I know it makes a difference in my art as well as the quality of my life. And, as a single person running a business where 50% of similar businesses have supposedly closed down (professional artists) in this economy, I have yet to find the balance to succeed as a type B. At the moment, I’m a type-B wanna-be. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Amy, great to hear from you again. As you know I love your art, in particular its playfulness. You channel your Type B when you create it, and your Type B when you market it.

      George Will once wrote how hard he strove to be Type B. He said he had decided each day to stop and smell the flowers. He then determined that each day, he would make sure he stopped and smelled more flowers than he had the day before. That’s a Type A approach, all right!๐Ÿ™‚

      • Hehehe … sounds familiar! And, hey, if it gets the playfulness and enjoyment of life in, then it works. ๐Ÿ™‚

        I’m so glad the type B comes out in the marketing as well. Trust me, when you look at my calendar, you would see the Type A in my functional day. And, when I’m like that too long, I long to shut it down, take a full day off, pamper myself with a hot cup of tea, some quiet time and some paint. I’m getting less and less Type A (as a personality, if not the way I operate my day) every day. ๐Ÿ™‚

        And yes, I am looking for ways to bring painting back to my creative world. Painted some record clocks for Christmas gifts and I have the bug to paint more! Just need to get past the current cash-flow blockage so I can buy the panels and have the completed pieces photographed. They are in the planning stages! ๐Ÿ™‚

        BTW, congratulations on putting yourself out there and sharing. See what opened up when you did? ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Wow I must be feeling good today, lots of smiley faces. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Patrick – Your comment about living a Type B life in a Type A world really hit home. Literally, since I live in the DC area, too. I often have to remind myself that I’m not running an NGO or being a A-list policy wonk because I DON’T WANT TO. (Apologies for the caps – it’s hard to hear myself think among all the folks shouting each other down in this town๐Ÿ™‚

    Instead, I’ve chosen to write and consult because that’s the kind of life that speaks to me, that feeds my soul. And what do you know, it’s also what allows me to give back in a way that heals rather than hurts, that celebrates rather than defeats. That’s rare in this town. I’m glad you’re here doing it too.

    Good luck with the writing class. Keep us posted on how it goes – I may try one myself in the spring.

    Thanks for sharing– Danielle

    • Hi Danielle,

      I enjoy your tweets, I don’t think I had connected we are both in the DC area. Thanks for this comment, nice to hear from someone in sync with my situation!๐Ÿ™‚

      I’m bummed to learn that our class Tuesday night is cancelled, but the instructor says she’s going to reschedule. Happy to keep in touch on how the class progresses.

      Patrick

  5. I think you did a great job letting go of the journalistic urge to hide oneself (hee. ex-journalist here, too). Fish out of water here, too. But I’m working on being happy where I am. I hope you share more of the pieces you write in the class here.

  6. Love this chance to get to know more about you!

    I’m a born and raised Oregon girl, and I’m most at home in the lush, green, damp environment of the Pacific Northwest. Make me go too long without the sound of rain and I get downright cranky. That being said, I’m drawn repeatedly to the desert. New Mexico is one of my favorite places on earth, and I’d buy a home there in a second if I could.

    By the way, I just finished a “true-life novel” that takes place largely in Arizona. It is Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls, a real page turner. Basically the story of her grandmother, but she made enough of it up that she felt she had to call it fiction.

  7. Hi Charlotte, thanks for this comment! I may have mentioned to you before that I was born in Klamath Falls, Oregon. That’s the high desert part of the state, though. My folks moved to AZ when I was two so no memories of K-Falls, but I have a connection to Oregon. (I can see the romantic attraction of rain, but it’s the clouds that get me. Living in England for awhile made me realize I need to see blue sky and sun, the light is more important to me than the warmth.)

  8. I was lured to your site by Charlotte’s post!๐Ÿ™‚
    You’re not the only man taking a leap of faith and opening up on a blog but, I agree, there are a lot more women out there sharing. Good for you! The world will slow down and be a better place when we all slow down and focus on being loving souls. You’re setting a great example.
    So nice to meet you!

  9. There are plenty of us that are showing signs of life we re just sequestered at home trying to find time to apply for grants answer e-mail chase down payments send out scores and maybe even write music. Occasionally I ll begin with a formal structure or a basic concept but more often than not the composition takes on a life of its own and these initial ideas are discarded by the time a piece is finished..

  10. I am one who hides and has difficult sharing the unvarnished facts if my life due to the fact that it is a reason to be disowned in my family if you do not fit the family image of perfection, no warts. . That being said, Many years ago I took an Education for Ministry Class (EFM) that taught me that the fear we have in sharing is that people will think badly of us and not want to be around us anymore. Which in the proper environment is far from what can actually happen.

    One of the first assignments of the class was to write a spiritual autobiography, each time with a different twist. The autobiography was to be shared verbally to the class, some of whom we knew on some level and others strangers. The first time, we had to give the autobiographies to the class, one of the members was very anxious and said she had to go first…something in her past was so terrible, she knew we would not like her afterwards and she had to get it over with.
    At the end of her presentation, to a one, we couldn’t figure out what it was that she was so ashamed of that we wouldn’t like her….there were people still to come that would talk about being gay, drug addicts, in AA, other dysfunctions that realized they could share with friends and strangers.
    Thanks for sharing your story.
    Peace,
    Siggi in Downeast Maine

    • Fascinating what you learned in your EFM class, thank you for sharing. And I confess that I love the anecdote about the person whose secret was so horrible and yet only drew shrugs from all of you!

      I’m sorry to hear of your fear of being disowned from family if you don’t maintain the perfect family image. That is certainly an additional challenge to being able to share, or even being able to be honest.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Revealing Yourself Through Your Art « The Artist's Road - June 13, 2011

    […] Iโ€™ve written here before, Iโ€™m new to Oprah-style sharing in my writing; as a journalist I tell otherโ€™s stories and kept myself out of the narrative. That […]

  2. Sharing Without Fear « The Artist's Road - July 13, 2011

    […] with my faculty adviser this semester is learning how to reveal myself in my writing. As I’ve written here, it’s hard to suppress the journalist in me and tell my own stories with the same level of […]

  3. AWP Nugget: Immersion Writing « The Artist's Road - March 3, 2012

    […] And so, for the past year, I’ve been trying to do just that. I’m being assisted by VCFA instructors, but it hasn’t always proved as easy to me as Stephanie made it sound for her. Longtime readers know how I’ve been forcing myself to move beyond the rigidity of journalism. […]

  4. Is It Easier to Share with Strangers Than With Friends? « The Artist's Road - June 8, 2012

    […] come a long way since the time on this blog when I wrote about my journalistic resistance to Oprah-style sharing. A personal essay of mine that reveals true vulnerabilities from my past will be published by a […]

  5. What Would You Like to See on The Artist’s Road? | The Artist's Road - December 20, 2012

    […] when I write these posts, but they also strike me as the most selfish. I still struggle with revealing myself to others through my […]

Chime in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: