How to Free Yourself from Old Narratives—and Write a New One
Photo courtesy of Lily Diamond
How to Free Yourself from Old
Narratives—and Write a New One
“We place so much emphasis on how we think about ourselves in relation to other people and how we communicate with others,” says Lily Diamond, a writer and coauthor of What’s Your Story?. “It is incredibly difficult to be deeply honest with ourselves, and those spaces are often hard to tap into.”
Diamond’s book, cowritten with lifelong activist Rebecca Walker, is a place for honesty and self-inquiry. And it feels like it’s come at the exactly right time: It teaches us how to delve in and then let go of some of the deep ideological narratives that we have been told or given. It questions those stories and examines why we’ve held on to them. It asks us what we want instead. And ultimately, it connects the dots so that we can begin rewriting new truths.
“People are trying to figure out what it means to be an American right now,” says Walker. “We’re maneuvering through some of the morass that has been defining our culture for quite some time. What does it mean to be someone who lives on this earth who wants to realign their story with a story that is more rooted in justice and equality and balance and truth and honor and love and compassion?”
All of this might seem like it’s a lot. It’s not. The workbook is like a journal that gently poses questions—for example, “What are your assumptions about people as a whole?” and “What is your first memory of being outside in nature?” There are pages where you fill in the blank, make a list, or sketch. All that matters, explain Diamond and Walker, is that you’re open to seeing yourself honestly and without judgment—and there is no wrong way to do it.
A Q&A with Lily Diamond and Rebecca Walker
Walker: As a writer who has been writing memoirs and editing personal essays for the last couple of decades, I came into an understanding about the process of writing one’s story. This is the story that we have either been told about ourselves or the story that we’re telling ourselves about who we are. The story for myself would have to be rewritten in order for me to have a happy, healthy, integrated life. My first book about rewriting feminism, To Be Real, and my first memoir, Black White and Jewish, were really about having an internal narrative of being a broken, fragmented, tragic mulatto kind of person.
Through the process of writing those stories, I found that I was able to excavate and liberate and forget a lot of the narrative and that wounding, and it opened up a space for my imagination and for a self-creation of a new story. I wrote another memoir, Baby Love, about having a baby and choosing motherhood after a lifetime of ambivalence. That book was also about looking at the narrative I had been given as the child of a powerful group of feminists—including my mother, Alice Walker, and my godmother, Gloria Steinem, and many of the women that I grew up with in the Ms. magazine offices. The narrative of feminism was about how motherhood was deeply disempowering and that when you decide to be a mother, you give up your identity and you give up your freedom. I had a deep longing to be a mother, so I had to find a way to both honor and dispatch that old story and birth this new story, that motherhood was not such a burden and was something that was actually very enlightening and broadened my sense of humanity and purpose immeasurably.
So through that and other books and editing books about new masculinity and new family configurations, I’ve spent my life devoted to this practice of trying to facilitate people’s authentic stories and authentic lives in a culture that really wants to put us into a prescribed story, a script that we’re supposed to follow, be that a script of gender, script of race, a script of class, a political script, or an ideological script. My life’s work has been not only changing that story for myself but also creating a space for others to change that story.
Diamond: When I met Rebecca in her art of memoir master class, I was coming out of a period of really deep heartbreak and grief, and it was at a juncture in my life when I was rewriting a lot of the stories that I’d held about my identity and my work life—my professional sense of self as well as who I was in relationship to my family and to the people in my life. It became evident to me what a challenge it can be to unearth and articulate my own truths.
We place so much emphasis on how we think about ourselves in relation to other people and how we communicate with others. But I think what’s often overlooked is that it is incredibly difficult to be deeply honest with ourselves, and those are spaces are often hard to tap into. In the years that followed the master class, Rebecca and I continued to work together and started creating this method in What’s Your Story? that would allow people to use these questions and writing prompts as pathways into understanding what their stories were and what their truths were and for getting to those deeper, more challenging places and spaces that are often hard to excavate on our own.
Diamond: I don’t have one that was most difficult or most illuminating because all of them to me feel absolutely inevitable and are designed to push us to our edge, challenge, and open up such deep places within us. On the whole, I feel really excited about the chapter on community. We are in this extraordinary moment collectively and individually, where we’ve come up against a renewed understanding and for some, perhaps, a new understanding of these profound, systemic, and structural inequities. Many of us, and in particular White people, have begun to question the systems of oppression that we have lived within and contributed to throughout our lives. Many of us have also asked: What is it that we are now supposed to do about this? How is it that we are now supposed to take action and move forward and continue to challenge ourselves? And in doing this work, asking ourselves these questions and interrogating the stories that we hold about how we see ourselves in relationship to the communities that we are in, how do we see the people around us, who do we choose to stand with, whose stories do we uplift beyond our own, whose stories in our communities are uplifted, and whose stories are silenced?
Walker: One of the motivating questions for the book and for my life is “Aside from a peaceful, physical transition, what do you think makes a good death?” And then we ask people to answer, “In order to die a good death, I need to what?” “I’m having trouble doing this because why?” “If I don’t do this, I will die feeling what?” Personally, my entire life is organized around this idea of what do I need to do in order to die a good death? For me, dying a good death means that I have attended to the things that are of deep importance to me, and that helps me align myself every single day with my most fundamental story. When I’m done, I want to be done. I want to have been of service to my students, to my readers, to my community. I want to make sure that my son is stable and set. I want him to take care and make sure that my parents feel a certain sense of ease and comfort. “How do you define a good death?” is a tough one. If people can figure that out, it can provide a really important road map for everyday living because it tells you what you need to do. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of things. If I want to die a good death, if I die tomorrow, I know that I’ve handled certain things to the best of my ability every day because I’ve been in touch with what those things are.
Diamond: In our book, there is no expectation that each question is going to have its own perfectly formed essay or response at all. In fact, for some of them, our hope is that people will scribble and scrawl all over the book and write to the edges. And maybe they’ll tear out a page. There are a couple of pages where we say tear this out and put it somewhere that you can see it. There are pages where we ask you to draw. All of those are to shake up this idea of expecting something from ourselves because at its core, this is the work of rewriting our stories. If you’re constantly coming up against this feeling that you couldn’t possibly expose yourself in that way, think, Okay, how do I free myself in this moment to just let it all loose? Let yourself be outside the burden of those expectations that we’ve held so long about who we are meant to be and how we are meant to express ourselves.
That’s what I try in my own work when I’m writing, too. If I don’t feel a little bit of fear, if I don’t feel my heart beating faster when I’m writing… I honestly try to approach it with the sense that I don’t want to bore myself. I don’t want to occupy spaces that I have occupied over and over again. If there isn’t something that is catching in my heart and my breath as I’m writing, I’m not letting myself be free enough. I try to hold myself to that and push myself gently and kindly into those spaces that scare me.
Walker: It’s not about being eloquent and perfect because that’s just reifying your old story of perfectionism and how you have to be and think in order to write. Forget about that. Just open up the book and let yourself pour out onto the page. This is your book. No one else is going to read it unless you want them to. It’s a completely free space. The only thing it asks of you is that you’re as open and honest as you possibly can be because that’s what will help you get the most out of the process. Let it be super easy-breezy. Some of my best work has come easily. And people are always like, “You have to rewrite. You have to do revisions. You have to work hard.” Not so much for me. I like it when it’s easy. And I don’t feel that’s in any way lazy. I feel like it’s a great gift that some of my best work comes easily. Be open to a new way of approaching this whole thing.
Walker: We’ve built that next step into the book. You write about where you are in the moment, and then the next question is about where you want to be. There is a space that then opens up for you to imagine, sit with, envision, invoke, and work with where you want to go. When you then write that down, when you are able to get through that block—and sometimes that might take weeks, it might take a month, it might take a year, it might take ten conversations, it might take some biohacking—bringing it into the field of action is the next step.
But the field of imagination, the field of thinking, is very different from the field of action. Now you know what you used to think about this and you know where you want to go now, so what can you do and what steps can you take to make that happen? People often need to be directed toward doing something as opposed to just talking about something, but what those steps to make change be? Think about what you don’t want, think about what you do want, think about the first three to five steps you have to take in order to get there, and then do them. If you’re stuck, it’s about being gentle with yourself and giving yourself permission to try to imagine anything—just be open. It doesn’t have to be a perfect solution, but let something come, don’t judge it, and move from there.
Diamond: We’re such creatures of habit and our habits are so dictated by what feels comfortable to us, which is dictated by our childhood psychology, the traumatic experiences we’ve had in our lives, be they emotional, physical, or spiritual. Through that matrix, we decide how we want to see and how we want to operate and how we construct the comfort zone that we live in. Our actions often emerge out of that, and we tend to do the same thing over and over and over again, until we become so sick and tired of it, that we hit rock bottom and feel that then we have to create some kind of change. Some deep will within us recognizes that the pattern that we have been holding on to and perpetuating every day is so sickening or nauseating that we can’t bear to do it for even one more moment.
What’s hard is when you’re not at one of those breaking points. You’ll often know that you need to make some change, but you’ll keep rejecting the opportunities for change because you’re not ready yet. You almost want the changes to sound harder than they are, but they’re quite simple. Figure out point A, figure point B, and figure out the steps in between. But to get to the point where you commit to doing them because you want to is totally different from just holding the idea.
One of my favorite scenes in film ever is in I Heart Huckabees, which is this movie where Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play existential detectives. They follow people around and observe and record their behavior. In replaying the behavior of one of the characters [played by Jude Law], the character hears himself telling the same story over and over and over again, and he starts vomiting. It’s just the best visual expression of what that breaking point looks like, when we have to become so sickened by the ways that we have limited and inhibited ourselves that we’re ready to start anew.
Walker: I love that film reference. I never thought about that. You really have to get so sick of your old pattern that you want to change. You really have to be just over it. That helps. It’s like Groundhog Day, basically flipping the same story, living the same story. He has to wake up and realize he has to change the story. That’s what all of those movies are about. This is human; this is how we evolve.
Excerpt from What’s Your Story?: A Journal for Everyday Evolution by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond © 2020 Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond. Reprinted with permission of the authors and the publisher, Sounds True, Inc.
Rebecca Walker is a bestselling author, a producer, and a cultural critic who has contributed to the global conversation about race, gender, culture, and power for over two decades. She is a cofounder of the Third Wave Fund, has won many awards, and was named one of the most influential leaders of her generation by Time magazine. She lives in Los Angeles.
Lily Diamond is a bestselling writer, an educator, and an advocate working to democratize wellness through storytelling and accessible practices for inner and outer nourishment. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Vice, Women’s Review of Books, and more. She lives in Maui.
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