Should you tell that really personal story in your book? Should you write about that incident, even though people might judge you for it? This is a question writers ask all the time. Whatever non-fiction you’re writing—a full-on memoir, self-help, or a big idea book—we know readers connect best when you share your message by telling your own story. But sometimes writers get scared of sharing too much. We worry a certain story will make people think we’re [insert really crappy thing here].
I'm Liz, the writer behind Green Goose Ghostwriting. I help entrepreneurs who want to write a book to demonstrate authority in their niche and get more speaking engagements. I write their book in their own voice so they can share their message, inspire others, and finally level-up their business
A client asked me recently how much of themselves they ought to include in their book, and I thought about an example from Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
It’s a big idea book by super-duper best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell about how instinct works. It examines how we make gut decisions in the blink of an eye, and why sometimes those decisions are better than if we’d hummed and hared for years, and other times our intuition royally screws up.
How does Gladwell handle personal stories?
On the face of it, Gladwell doesn’t tell his own stories. He talks about other people. He tells us about a psychologist who can accurately predict which married couples will get divorced after just a few minutes listening to them. He introduces us to antiquities experts who can tell a fake at a glance, and tells the harrowing story of the four police officers who shot Amadou Diallo after he pulled out a… wallet.
But when you slow down and really look at Gladwell’s stories, you discover many of them are actually his experience of learning about the psychologist’s work, or whatever it is he’s sharing.
In one chapter, he tells us about a researcher examining racial discrimination. This researcher developed a program to test people’s unconscious racial biases. Gladwell shares that when he took the test, it determined he connects African Americans with negative associations. He took the test again, and again, and got the same results—even though he’s half-African American himself.
It doesn’t make him look great.
But he goes on to explain the impact our culture has on our unconscious perceptions of different races. And as I read, I realized I would probably score the same on that test, even though my best friend is black, even though I fiercely support racial equality.
But I felt okay about it. I mean, not okay about having an unconscious bias. That sucks. I felt okay because the author was in the same boat as me. And he’s not an asshole, so it suggested I’m not an asshole either.
His story served a purpose.
This was the first book I’d read by Gladwell but by this chapter, I liked the guy. He seemed decent. Nice. Intelligent. I’d decided he’s probably a good guy.
His experience showed that “good people” are still subject to cultural influencers. And the story acted as a balm, making me feel okay about also being affected by them. Gladwell was right there, sharing the experience with me, so I felt better. I felt forgiven for being affected by the racist shit society shows at us.
Does your story serve a purpose?
If your story serves a purpose, you should share it, even (and maybe especially) if it’s scary. But how do you know if a particular anecdote serves a purpose?
If any of the following statements ring true, you’re on to a winner.
Helps the reader trust, respect, or like me.
Demonstrates other people trust, respect, or like me.
Convinces the reader I have personal experience with their situation. (This is what Gladwell did in the example above.)
Shows I’ve done my research. (Also achieved in the example above.)
Confronts questions the reader might have at this stage of the book.
What if you’re still not sure?
If you suspect your story serves a purpose but still feel intimidated about sharing it, try writing it anyway. You don’t have to commit to including it in the final book, but putting it in the draft will let you scope it out. You can see how it feels once it’s on the page.
I suspect, when you see it in black and white, you’ll see how powerful it is. You’ll understand how it can help your reader. And that’s what your book’s all about, right? Helping the reader.
And if I’m wrong, just hit delete! No harm done. (But fair warning… I don’t think I’m wrong. ;) )
Racial biases are not okay.
Just to be clear… racial biases might be common but they’re not okay (to put it mildly). It’s brutal that, on top of the overt racism we see, our society also creates unconscious biases against ethnic minorities.
It was hard for me to read that most people have these deep-rooted negative associations with African Americans. I’m a staunch supporter of equality. That’s part of my identity. I think, I’m one of the good ones. I know people should be treated equally, regardless of their color. But god damn it, society has spent decades telling me subtle stories about what it means to be a certain race, and I’ve been affected by those stories, just like everyone else.
But I’m glad I know now.
When we’re aware, we can tackle the problem.
Blink tells us we can train our intuition to overcome prejudices and tune into the more relevant stuff, like body language and tiny changes in facial expressions. We can learn to look past color and go with our gut on all the other aspects that help us decide whether to trust a person, if they’re a danger to us, when they’re lying or being sincere.
Once we know we’re susceptible to unconscious biases, we can overcome them.
If you want to know more, get Gladwell’s book.
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