I’ve taught writing for years, primarily to adults who yearn to tell stories about personal experience. I’ve worked with doctors and lawyers, comedians and chronic liars, entrepreneurs and private eyes, and not one but two strippers—both of whom also happened to be English teachers.

Sitting at a glossy mahogany dining table inside a stately old home, the location of the writing school where I teach, I’ve read stories of people who’ve dealt with cancer, chronic pain, paralysis, and bipolar disorder. I’ve read stories of women who’ve lost children and men who’ve been sexually abused.

We typically drink wine in my classes, cheap wine served in plastic cups, not only because it calms the nerves but also because wine lends a pleasant social veneer to what, under normal circumstances, would be regarded as a socially risky endeavor. Through their writing, my students tell truths they would never reveal at dinner parties. Although I can lump their stories into broad subject categories—addiction, injury, illness, loss—every student’s story is unique.

One pretty blond woman wrote a story of competing in beauty pageants as a teenager and always coming in second. She didn’t win until she was diagnosed with leukemia, started chemotherapy, lost her hair, and competed in a wig. Only then did she discover the inner poise necessary to wow the judges.

A young mother who talked with her hands and frequently lost her train of thought wrote about being in more foster homes than she could count. “I can remember thirteen of them,” she explained one night through tears. “But I know there were a lot more.”

Although we discuss their work as stories, I never forget we’re talking about real lives, real heartaches, and that the narrator in question is sitting across the table from me.

How did the narrator feel as she held her dying husband in her arms?

It seems to me the real story is Vietnam’s effect on the narrator after the war ended.

How long was the prison sentence?

What did the autopsy say?

Like Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights, my students toil endlessly to tell their stories in an effort to save their lives or, at the very least, redeem them through understanding.

After talking with thousands of people about their most personal stories, here are a few things I’ve learned about the human experience:

  1. Everyone is broken. Everyone feels alone. Everyone is scared to share their deepest truths.
  2. What people are most afraid to write is exactly what they should be writing.
  3. We all have experiences that we hold up as the stories that define our lives—and often, the most influential experiences are those involving shame or grief or trauma.
  4. The narrative we construct is the story we believe. Did your mother work full time and ignore you? Or did your mother’s full-time work teach you independence? The set of facts is what it is, but the emotional plot line is up to us. However…
  5. Our stories are not fixed in stone. Often, upon examination, the stories we’ve told ourselves for years start to dissolve and newer, more compassionate and forgiving narratives arise.
  6. Making meaning out of seemingly meaningless events is hard work. Often, it takes several drafts to fully understand the impact of an event.
  7. Writing may initially come from a desire to help others, but ultimately, the person who benefits most is the writer.
  8. All human beings have a hunger to be seen, to be heard, and to be understood. Which is why…
  9. Listening is the greatest gift you can give to another.