I discovered that storytelling is also just as much science as art.
value studies, value studies, value studies
Now, decades later, I began to pick up every memoir I could find. I found solace in stories. In a sort of literary schadenfreude, I devoured tales with a remarkable degree of pain and suffering: childhood neglect, emotional abuse, divorce and death. The survivability of these narratives got me out of bed on mornings when nothing else could. The universality of the resilience these writers showed propelled me on my own writing journey when I realized that I had a story to tell too. I started typing out the first chapter of a thinly veiled novel, pseudonyms and all, about “Colette’s” spiraling struggle with anxiety and depression.
One morning during this time, I was walking my dog and listening to an audiobook: We Are the Luckiest by Laura McKowen, about her harrowing journey toward sobriety. While I’ve never struggled mightily with alcohol, addiction has touched my loved ones. McKowen’s struggle was honest and brutal; she rehashed shameful memories in which her inebriation led her to leave her young daughter alone in a hotel room. In what felt like a personal missive, McKowen said, “If you truly want to live with peace in your heart and be free of the burdens of the past—you must be brave enough to be willing to look at yourself honestly, clearly, and without reservation.”
It felt like a gut punch and an invitation. She had gone spelunking in her story and lived to tell the tale. More so, that was the tale. If she could do it, so could I. Colette had to become Colleen.
Thankfully, I wasn’t without resources. With the knowledge of value to guide me, I discovered that storytelling is also just as much science as art. There are mechanics and structure. You can create your own map.
I stumbled upon Shawn Coyne, who has put forth a formulaic approach to storytelling called the Story Grid, a sort of writing value study. Coyne argues that stories either work or don’t, based on the extent to which they hit certain critical elements as dictated by the genre. Thus it can be used to pin down precisely where a story is unsuccessful and, consequently, unsatisfying.
Sounds a lot like the mechanics of value. As there is only one darkest dark in a painting, each story must contain a climax, the result of an inciting incident and progressive complications for the protagonist. The biggest contrast between light and dark should be the work’s focal point, and a variety of values makes a work complex and compelling, as do rich subplots and characters. The lightest lights are always added last when painting, the parallel in story structure being the resolution. When a story, or painting, works, it provokes you to continue to engage with it, the goal of any creator.
I needed to collect and chronicle my experiences, starting at the beginning of my life, and to organize them around a central theme. Armed with sticky notes and color-coding galore, I timelined out my existence on my dining room table—all thirty-one years of it.
I was in a groove until middle school, when I began fumbling with memories as I found myself filtering my feelings and experiences into “good” and “bad.” Starkly in the “good” camp sat my horseback-riding trophies, my ACT score, my thin frame; la belle vie. “Good” had always gone up and out, shining for the world to see, in Instagrammed vignettes and perfect Christmas cards. I had never before explored the shadows, the unacknowledged fear and envy sparked by those riding competitions, my belief that good grades indicated worthiness, and my disordered eating underpinning my size 0 skirts and loose jodhpurs. “Bad” went down and within for me to bottle up and bury with binging and busyness.
It was surprising to begin to understand the degree to which I’d been living this double life. I’d always thought I was self-censoring, first in life and later in writing, to protect others, but I found I was really trying to protect the self-image I’d conjured. “How’s that working out?” the always-kind voice in my head poked. Once I was able to let my guard down and start seeing all the shades of my story, it could all coexist without judgment or label. Better yet, the nuances illuminated, magnified, and complemented each other.
As a writer, I’m just as personally motivated by a visceral itch to expel my story, largely in hopes of better understanding it, as I am by a desire to normalize my experiences for others. “Write the book you wish you had when you needed it,” so the saying goes. And nothing is more transparent than reading a book that is hyperfocused on image, reputation, self-protection, and ego. It’s shallow and, worse, unhelpful. It’s an all-white canvas.
Answering one question often begets another. I now understood the backbone of my tale, my central struggle, but I needed to unpack how that played out on a micro level, unconsciously, time and time again over the course of my life. My mother’s voice echoed in my head: “To discern value, you must teach yourself how to see how things really are. You must take a step back and squint.” I must, well, study my values, in another context.
In therapy a year or so prior, I was given a chance to define my value set. What was important to me? My therapist asked if I’d like to take a test, and I said yes immediately. I’d learned to love tests because I could control them. She handed me a sheet of paper with a list of hundreds of values—love, honor, faith, respect, and so on. I circled those that felt right and was happy to have a tool to label and categorize the messiness of existence. I thought of life as a series of tests, but what if life was simply a continuous study?
I must, well, study my values, in another context.
Thankful I wrote in pencil, I’ve erased and blended my value system over the last few years after discovering that some of my “values” were merely wounds, how my ego wanted to show up instead of my soul. My values now feel true to the best version of me, which has made me an infinitely more examined writer. I see these guiding principles in the characters I write too; what motivates them, what do they want and need, and how do these values shift in each scene and in the global arc? We all make choices, and sometimes they don’t exemplify our ideals. They even contradict or pit against each other.
We all have a shadowy side that we don’t want the world to see, and thus, by correlation or causation, we all have a darkest dark, a rock-bottommost rock bottom. This excavation, for me, led to hard-won, inspired, and healing writing. From this floor, we can trust the colors will lighten, largely because we bring what we’ve learned from traversing the dark, a palette of perspective. As with a value study, we can contour the contrasts, bringing deeper meaning and understanding to our opus.
The lightest light, the glorious, earned light, is painted last, because it has to be. Our life’s purpose, our prides and our joys. We simply cannot create, understand, or feel deserving of them a single moment too soon. This entire spectrum is filled in over the course of a life. It’s all, quite literally, a work of art. And if words are my art form, I suppose that the act of continuously showing up to do this work indeed makes me a writer.
I recently wrote a piece for a framing shop I frequent, highlighting the opening of their new store. On a visit to the fresh space, I brought a few pieces to be framed, including my beloved value study of Sidney. We shared a kinship, the shop owner and I, an appreciation of what we deemed beautiful and sublime, what others might judge frivolous. We talked about our current projects, an opportunity to muse on the canvas I held in my hands. I picked out a frame, to which she slowly and gracefully responded, “It’s on us.”
My oceany value study sits on my bookshelf, now exalted in an ornate gold frame, one that would be reserved for old-world masterpieces. I love the juxtaposition between the gilded decoration and a mere sketch, but I wonder if my choice really is that odd at all. A piece has never inspired me more, not just to write but to heal, and that deserves to be celebrated.
Colleen White is an MBA and writer based in Chicago. She's working on her memoir, "Value Studies", and posts personal essays on her blog of the same name. In her free time, she enjoys Broadway musicals, books, beaches and her mini Bernedoodle.