From Istanbul to the Journals of a Girl Now Gone: The Importance of Stories

I remember climbing out of the cab in front of the apartment building in Istanbul, Turkey. Walking up to the quiet building. Pressing the buzzer. A crackling voice came through the small intercom.


“This is Shawn,” I said in a hesitant voice. I had never been there before.

“Come on up.”

A buzzing noise, the click of a lock, and I was inside. The lobby was empty. The elevator didn’t have an interior door, so I could see each successive floor as it rose up, up, methodically up to the sixth floor. Outside the apartment door, shoes were lined up. I took mine off, knocked, and waited.

For the next three weeks, I traveled by taxi to the apartment, a one-hour drive across that hundred-mile-wide city, through the twisting streets, sometimes covered by the Muslim call to prayer. I was writing the story of a man who was dying of cancer, and nearly every day, as we sat in his study and quietly talked through his life, he would recite the verse, “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed…”

* * * * *

A few years before that, I pulled up outside a nondescript Maryland home, close to an elementary school. Small children ran down the long sidewalk, hefting backpacks nearly as big as themselves. I sat in the car for a moment, nervous about the meeting.

I took a deep breath, climbed out of my car, and walked to the front door. The man who answered was chiseled, broad-shouldered, a specimen. He welcomed me in and we sat in the sunlight streaming through the window. He had once served as part of the long-secret Seal Team 6. He was telling me about a SEAL whose memoir I was writing, a man who had been at the invasion of Panama, a man who had been shot in the head and left in the dead pile.

He told me stories that, if we ever wanted to publish them, I would need permission from various government agencies in order to put them in print. He told me about entertaining higher-ups at an outdoor feast in the Middle Eastern wilderness while watching mortars explode on the far-off mountainside.

* * * * *

One final story: I remember walking up to a suburban house surrounded by beautiful flowers. Inside, I sat with the parents of a girl who had committed suicide years before, a girl who had, early one morning, after years of torment and incorrect diagnoses and medication that simply couldn’t reach deep down to the heart of the matter, walked out on the dock near their house and slipped into the water wearing a backpack full of rocks.

I left their house with two reusable grocery bags full of their daughter’s journals. I remember reading through every single one of them multiple times, trying to discover when everything went so wrong. The journals were in my house for months. I stared at them. Their presence filled me with sadness.

But they were also beautiful, filled with her words, her art. She was still there, somehow, in those journals, and I spent months trying to find her in the pages.

* * * * *

Every time someone sits across from me and tells me their story, it is a gift…to me, and to them. Whenever we take time to write out the things that have happened to us, we approach a kind of wholeness that, for most people, remains out of arm’s reach. But telling our stories puts us in better touch with who we are.

And for nearly 12 years now I have made a living by listening and then writing the stories of others. In the last year or so, Maile and I began to explore what it might look like if, instead of writing FOR others, I came alongside and coached people through the process of writing their own stories down. What would it look like for me to help them tell the truth about their experience, their life, what they’ve been through?

We’re doing it, and we’re calling it The Six Month Memoir. If you’d like to travel this road with us, if you’d like to learn about telling your own story and put in the required work, at the end of six months you will have a completed memoir.

Registration ends soon! To find out more, head over to our website.