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If I Tell My Story, Will You Understand Me?

I’m trying to write a story about the first time I held hands with a girl. Simple enough, right? It is, after all, something most people have done.


By

Gregory Collins

Gregory Collins is a writer and filmmaker. He was born and raised in Kenya and has lived in Brazil, Malawi and the United States. He is currently developing a film about the Third Culture Kid experience.

I’m trying to write a story about the first time I held hands with a girl.

Simple enough, right? It is, after all, something most people have done. I want to convey the experience of transitioning out of blissful, undefined childhood. I want to capture the sense of coming into consciousness, of being brought into orbit, of standing on the verge of an awakening.

But, I keep getting lost in random tangents that are necessary to anyone reading my story. I was in fifth grade. I hadn’t seen my parents in five weeks. Forty other missionary kids and myself were huddled around a hexagonal wooden tower with television screens in each panel. We were watching an edited version of Dances With Wolves, in which words and entire scenes are blacked out. I searched the blackness desperately, because subliminally I knew there was some vital correlation between what it was hiding and what I was feeling. Oh, and all this happened in a forest somewhere in Kenya.

So by the time I get to the handholding story, I’ve found myself writing paragraph after paragraph attempting to preempt erroneous assumptions. Because I don’t want my readers to interpret “white,” “Kenya,” and “boarding school,” as “colonial,” “exotic,” and “privileged.” I can find no momentum, no traction, and I feel powerless to tell the simplest of stories.

You see my problem, right?

They say you should write what you know. But clearly “they” have never met a Third Culture Kid. If they had, they would know that, at best, this advice is incomplete. Because the assumption inherent in “write what you know” is that the context is what everyone else already knows.

But, what if your formative experiences – the fabric of your worldview and your imagination, the details to which you default, the everything that defines you – are only shared by a couple hundred people (if you’re lucky)?

So I pose this question earnestly: How do you make your stories universal? Is it possible?

There are a few tricks. A storyteller might align herself with a larger subculture and repackage her experience for that audience, say the military or a faith community. Or he might focus exclusively on his own personal experiences, believing the only thing a Third Culture Kid can legitimately contribute is the very experience of being a Third Culture Kid. Or, he might spin his story as an adventure, an exotic anomaly.

But times are changing. The zeitgeist is evolving. People are international now. A global perspective is no longer something special. A paradigm shift is underway.

And here we are at the forefront. A part of me wants to shout, “This is our time! The world is finally ready for us to write what we know.” But the rest of me is stuck at my computer trying to rework my short story, again, for the mainstream.

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