One of the toughest things for a writer – especially a nonfiction writer – is trying to figure out how to tell the truth without throwing someone else under the bus.
It often keeps authors playing small, not willing to tell the deepest truths about themselves, the world they evolved from, and even a nemesis that plagued them.
Yet here’s the rub: every epic story entails major conflict.
Humans are irrevocably sculpted by and often unknowingly guided by conflict. While it might not appear to be the overarching theme in everyday life, there are patterns of it in everyday life, and it simply must be an overarching theme for the very best stories on the planet.
Where the magic lies is in the understanding that your inner battles are just as important as your outer battles.
Beginning authors have a tendency only to concentrate on one or the other, when neither is mutually exclusive in any human journey.
Where writing gets really, really good. . . is when the twain shall meet.
(No, not Mark Twain.)
Twain derives from the Old English twegen, meaning “two”. The phrase “never the twain shall meet” was used by Rudyard Kipling:
"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."
While Kipling was referring to two regions and ideological viewpoints he believed could never come together, the argument for you, dear author, is that the twain should most definitely meet.
When your inner battle meets your outer battle. . .well, that is where the magic happens.
This is true in both fiction and nonfiction. Readers love to know that demons, nemeses, and enemies can be conquered: abusers, cancer, liars, bullies, thieves, dictators, etc.
And then. . . there is the dictator in your head.
I taught a leadership course outside the Vatican in Rome to female refugees who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo—one of the darkest places on the planet for women as measured in rape, violence and lack of education. It was a humbling honor to teach them leadership skills when they had survived so much.
Still, class was going well when I was suddenly confronted by one of the refugees, Patricia Malanga. She said, “Bridget, you’re telling me that I have the right to look eye-to-eye with any person on the planet.”
“Yes,” I said, matter-of-factly, knowing this was a true and inherent right of any human being, including a woman.
“That’s not true,” she replied flatly.
“In my country, we are not allowed to look anyone older than us in the eyes—not aunties, uncles, and especially not any leaders or authority figures. We have never been allowed to.”
She went on to say that in their culture, it was not only rude, but so dangerous a sign of disrespect that it was illegal.
I was not about to make this beautiful young woman wrong. I listened, and was formulating what I hoped would be an empowering prompt for further discussion when a beautiful, short and fiery nun stood up at the back of class, her hands clenched into fists at her sides.
Less than five feet tall with a shower of short-cropped, greying hair under her coifed veil, she was nonetheless one of the most imposing figures in the room as she spoke.
“My sisters!” she declared with great fire. “This was not always so! When I was a little girl, we were allowed to look into the eyes of our aunties and our uncles, our grandmothers and grandfathers. Even the tribal leaders would look us in the eyes with great adoration, and we could look straight back at them.”
She paused in the shocked silence of the room before continuing.
“It was not until Kabila, the dictator, came into power that we were not allowed to look into the eyes of our elders!”
I had never seen so many mouths pop open in one room. Every Congolese stared at her in utter astonishment. They thought it had always been this way – for centuries even.
In that moment, they realized just how much they had been fooled, ruled and abused by their former dictator. Worse, he was still controlling their very behaviors outside of Congo--even after they thought they had attained their freedom!
Kabila had become the dictator in their heads, whom they had allowed to continue to rule the roost.
My invitation to you:
Think back to the biggest conflict you ever faced in your life and who your outer demon was that plagued you. Now, reveal to yourself who the inner demon has been (the dictator in your head). This is the one that lies to you and plagues you with thoughts that you are not enough.
You see, it is not only your outer battles that your readers want to know about. It is your deep, inner battles, and triumphs, too.
Tell them the truth. Wrap yourself not in protection but vulnerability. This level of disclosure reveals the gold hiding beneath the dross, and the unveiling is the alchemy to make it shine.
Yes please, please, let the twain meet.