the epic feminine: welcome to the epic story of your life ( + how to make it a good one)
“I haven’t a clue as to how my story will end. But that’s all right. When you set out on a journey and night covers the road, you don’t conclude that the road has vanished. And how else could we discover the stars?” — Nancy Willard
I wrote a personal essay that was published in Marie Claire magazine a couple of years ago (an editor there discovered me through my Livejournal and commissioned the piece). It was about, very roughly speaking, the fall of my marriage and the rise of my sense of self.
The night after I submitted it, I got up at 3 a.m. to email the editor and ask if I could take it back. Before the magazine came out, I remember being so terrified that I curled up against my boyfriend in the middle of the afternoon and asked him what the hell did I do (as if he could answer that) and cried.
What I hadn’t realized is how many women would read that story and see themselves reflected in it; if it was about me, it was also about them.
I know this, because some of them sent me emails that would start to transform my approach to writing and storytelling. As they related their experience to my experience, and we saw the commonality, my perspective opened up. I could see some of the forces at work — of culture and history and economics — influencing the dynamic that formed between my ex-husband and me. Although we were responsible for that dynamic, it was also about something bigger than us. A woman approached me who said she had worked as a personal assistant for a famous actor and gotten a close look at the kind of power imbalance that can end up sacrificing the needs and identity of the weaker partner.
“I’m glad someone finally told it like it is,” she said.
That had never been my intention.
I thought my experience was mine alone. Through the act of putting it into story, and then putting it out there, I had tapped into something much more universal, and my eyes opened wider as a result.
To live an epic life is to find ways to connect your seemingly small existence to some bigger truth, some deeper meaning. It’s to use your life as a door that opens onto the human condition; to understand that what plagues you, plagues others. What brings you joy, brings joy to others.
Sounds obvious, maybe, but we tend to forget this. When we hurt, we contract ourselves around the hurting. We turn inward. We isolate. We feel shame. We disconnect from community because we fear the community won’t accept us.
But when we tell our stories, all this changes. We see how the themes of our respective lives link up with each other and say something about the culture at large. My tiny individual consciousness merges with your individual consciousness; as a result, our consciousness expands.
(Those circles where people sit around and share their stories, whether it was housewives in the 1960s or recovering alcoholics and addicts today? They don’t call them consciousness-raising groups for nothing.)
Telling your story is a transformative act. click to tweet
As Margaret Atwood once observed, “Powerlessness and silence go hand-in-hand.” To deny someone a voice is to render them invisible. History is written by the victors, as the saying goes, but what it forgets to add is how, if left unchecked, the conquerors write over the conquered who then get cannibalized, pushed to the margins, turned into stereotypes, degraded, devalued.
To speak up is to speak with an intention to prevent that from happening.
To live out your life as an epic story is to live with intention. Part of that intention includes opening up to other people and bringing them into your story, and mingling your story with theirs.
An epic story is a big story. It requires, among other things, a large cast of characters.
Maybe you don’t think you’re that kind of person: too shy and introverted to be the subject, the hero, of an epic, even if that epic is your own life. But for a story to be a story, someone has to want something, and then confront and overcome a series of obstacles in order to become the kind of person who can achieve it. The meaning of the story is in that struggle: how it transforms the protagonist, and in how the protagonist tells it after the events have come to an end.
As Donald Miller points out, an epic story involves an epic journey, and an epic journey demands an epic goal.
To start living out your life as an epic requires that you set an epic goal (even if the first part of that goal is “to figure out an epic goal”). You don’t have to feel like you’re “enough” in order to start out on that journey; you’re not supposed to be.
It’s the journey that makes you. click to tweet
It’s the journey that forces you to learn and stretch and grow and accumulate confidence and self-esteem as you meet one challenge after the other, as you learn from your so-called failures and adjust and adapt. So when you think about what you want, it’s just as important to think about who you want to become — the version of yourself you’re willing to suffer for in order to become.
(Yes, I know, suffering sucks, but chances are you’re going to suffer anyway. Life is pretty much wired that way. So you might as well put that suffering to a higher purpose.)
You don’t live out an epic because you’re an epic person.
You’re an epic person because you’re living out an epic.
And that makes for one hell of a story.