CRAFT: On Revealing Secrets in Our Stories by Nicole Breit

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My wife and I are standing in a grocery store aisle—no kids, no other distractions—when I own up.

“I have to tell you something.” She looks up from the shelves of packaged food and into my eyes, expectantly.

A woman in a beige coat reads the label on a salsa jar ten feet away from us. I become aware of a steady background hum—the murmur of large-scale appliances, a mingling of indistinct voices. Raise my voice just enough.

“Um, I don’t think you’ll be terribly surprised to know I have a crush?”

My cheeks grow hot, then hotter when I say his name. Confirming what I’ve said is true and that I’m a bit embarrassed, a little afraid, to admit it. I want to cover my face with my scarf, zip my hood up over my head, disappear.

Her expression is a question mark. For a moment I wish I could wrap the secret back up and hide it somewhere. But my inconvenient feelings are the key to a piece I’ve been quietly working on; it’s come together in the format of a user guide on sexual identity. I’m proud of my work. An esteemed journal wants to publish it.

Once it sinks in my wife isn’t surprised. We’ve been together for nearly twenty years. We’re both bi. She understands the attraction. What she wants to know is if I feel I need to act on my feelings.

I hadn’t anticipated the question, worrying more about how my secret might land (and what to do if she felt uncomfortable with my story being out in the world).

Telling the truth about our feelings, in life and in our stories, can be tough. But this time it helped me take a step closer to my wife. Considering her question helped me bring my essay-in-progress to a close that felt more true.


Delving into our secrets, exploring the messy truth, is what gives personal narrative its urgent pulse—but truth-telling can be a risky business, with known and unexpected consequences. It can make us feel very afraid.

I asked my friend, Carmelinda Scian, about her list of fears when writing CNF:

Exposure, ridicule, a loss of veneration from friends, acquaintances, my husband, my sons. Will they still respect and admire me in the way I feel they do now? Surely, ego is tied into this dread of vulnerability, of exposure. What if they discover I’m not the up-right moral, intelligent, confident, person they think I am or, I like to think, they think I am? What if I cause my sons damage? And if I spatchcock myself to the world, like a chicken on a cutting block, what defenses will remain in my keeping?

I feel the same fears, but I also feel compelled to expose my imperfect heart, sharing aspects of myself and my life that others may criticize or judge me for.

Why? Because I want more truth.

I want to be part of a culture that counters harmful and false narratives with thoughtful, open-hearted explorations. To be part of a movement that makes more and more space for marginalized writers whose lives have been portrayed for eons through an inaccurate lens that isn’t theirs.

I also want more truth about telling the truth.

Which is why I asked some writers I admire what drew them to creative nonfiction—how, and why, they are able to tell the truth about their private experiences so publicly.


“The more I pushed something away, the more it wanted to be written. But I had to be ready to write it.”

~ Claire Sicherman, Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation

I am fascinated by the stuff we don’t talk about. The silence in my family growing up about the Holocaust. The silence of being ghosted. To me, there is more fear in staying quiet, in holding secrets in the body, which can be harmful to both physical and mental well-being, than in writing and uncovering what is being held.

It took me eight years after the traumatic birth of my son to write about it. The writing began to pour out of me as I was struggling to cope with the death of my grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor.

Writing was a way of helping me deal with the grief of her death, the genocide of the Holocaust, and the traumatic birth of my son. Just like my essay about being ghosted was about the grief I felt after losing a friend. At the time, the urgency of this writing felt as necessary as breathing.

There are so many emotions at play when writing CNF and memoir, and many of them I don’t want to feel. Yes, fear definitely. There’s grief. Anger. Sadness. Doubt. Self-hatred.

The magic happens when I am able to move whatever sensations and emotions I am holding in the body out of me and onto the page. There is a fear in unearthing this. The stuff going on inside me can feel so big that I don’t know if I’ll survive. But then I push through it and I do.

I’m not sure that anything ever overrides my fear. I actually have quite a lot of fear even after I write and publish. It’s not about getting rid of anything. It’s about paying attention to what is there and feeling my way through it, as best I can.

Writing my memoir was actually one of the most painful things I have ever done. I had to go into the trauma and figure my way back out.

People call this work brave. I have a hard time with that word because why should we need to be brave in order to be vulnerable, to be our most authentic selves? But it’s true.

The very act of sharing our writing is a brave act. I am taking a piece of myself and offering it to the world. It’s like cutting into my chest and exposing part of my beating heart.

“I was a quiet kid, the family scapegoat and secret-keeper, raised with the dictum, children should be seen and not heard. By writing creative nonfiction, I’ve discovered that there are people who want to read and hear what I have to say. And that has been one of the greatest gifts writing creative nonfiction has brought my way.”

~ Rowan McCandless, A Map of the World & Found Objects


I have a quote by Audre Lorde taped to the wall above my writing desk. It’s a reminder to be courageous and to speak truth to power.

I write for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.

To write creative nonfiction requires bravery. Unlike writing fiction, there’s no plausible deniability. There are no characters, no inventive plot twists to hide behind. It’s just you, your truth, and the blank page. And that can be a frightening experience for so many reasons: the fear of judgment, the fear of hurt feelings, and the fear of breaking familial and cultural taboos about what is or is not considered acceptable to write.

What helps me to deal with the fear, and to overcome any resistance is the understanding that I’m not required to bleed onto the page for the benefit of readers. I can give myself the gift of time to decipher what is the basis of the anxiety that is causing such unwillingness to write.

Knowing that I have given myself permission to press pause gives me the opportunity to examine where that fear is coming from. More often than not the source of my resistance is around the taboo towards revealing secrets—the we don’t air our dirty laundry in public.

What sways me to open up and share those pieces is the understanding that somewhere there is someone for whom my words might be a healing balm, an encouragement to speak their truth to power in whatever creative form that might take. And so I write.

The act of revision is a gift because, in order to make a piece as artful as I can and as understandable as possible to the reader, I have to clearly understand what it is that I am wrestling with, thinking about, and trying to say. Through the act of revision, I must first make the past and passage understandable to myself.

I’ve also discovered that considering what form a piece might take provides me with the necessary distance and an easier entry through any potential anxiety I might have on the subject matter.


“Why does any writer write? Painter paint? Sculptor sculpt? A need to create. My goal for decades has been to write my biography, but gaps in memory and the severity of the trauma, closed that door. But maybe not forever.”

~ Shirley Harshenin, Letters from My Brothers

I didn’t expect, felt totally blindsided by, the physical and emotional shut down that occurred when my first personal essay was published. I’d been waiting, diligently preparing for this moment for years—done the emotional work. So much therapy! I was super proud of the finished essay and that I was able to tell my story without revealing icky details.

All my confidence shattered at a point of no return—my story was out there, in print, on newsstands. My muse packed her bags, but I pushed forward, forced what I know now could not/should not be forced. My inner kid was in full panic mode. I told family secrets, which of course was forbidden!

Everything I wrote for weeks, months, after that first publication came out scrambled. My thought process was messed up, my page was a sea of red squiggles. Every sentence I typed, I deleted, rewrote, deleted again, changed back to original, repeat, repeat. There was no flow. Just block after block.

What I needed was to step back, practice self-care, but I was angry and frustrated that the decades of therapy and emotional work could be wiped out in an instant. That I was finally here, getting published, and it was over before it had even begun. I couldn’t see past the immediate moment. I felt betrayed by my own brain! The whole thing left me really depressed when I should have been celebrating!

Maybe I am not supposed to write, maybe I should just move on looped through my thoughts often. But I kept returning to, writing lights a fire in me like nothing else. A passion like that cannot be wrong. When I write, I feel alive.

Two years have passed since that first depressing episode. I’ve learned that space is important, needed. That self-care comes before any deadline. That no matter how much time has passed, no matter how many hours of therapy under my belt, there will always be a terrified kid in me that needs love, reassurance, compassion, understanding, and care.

Through my amazing writing community, I am learning there are countless ways to tell a story, and as many ways to write a biography. I’ll get there. And I’ll have a safe and satisfying time getting there.


The opportunity to enable a deeper understanding of our collective humanity is one reason Carmelinda offers for moving past resistance:

By divulging the muddy workings of my psyche to the world, I might contribute to the much-needed understanding of our flawed humanity. As such, by sharing my weaknesses, imperfections, dreads, mistakes with others, perhaps humanity will, in time, be able to grasp at a less acrimonious, confused and self-damning existence.

Sometimes telling the truth about our lives can yield unexpected rewards. Most often—as I recently discovered when divulging my heart’s small secret to my wife—my deepest fears turn out to be unfounded.

So far, Claire hasn’t regretted what she’s revealed about herself in her writing:

In fact, my experience has been quite the opposite. I find the more personal, truthful and honest I can be, the more I am able to connect with other people in a deep and meaningful way. It’s tapping into the shared experience that gets into the heart of what writers do, when people come up and say, “Thank you for writing about that. I am feeling this too.” 


If there’s a story you feel called to write but also feel afraid to start, don’t try to dodge your fear. Acknowledge it. Investigate it in a free-write. Then ask yourself how you’ll feel if you don’t write your story.

Consider the good things that might happen—all the positive rewards you may not expect for doing this unique form of emotional labor.

Re-read this article, and remember: you are part of a community of truth-tellers who are here, walking this path, beside you.

nicole breitNicole Breit is the creator of Spark Your Story, a self-directed online writing program for new, emerging, and experienced life writers. An award-winning poet and essayist, Nicole lives and writes on British Columbia’s gorgeous Sunshine Coast. Her lyric essay, “An Atmospheric Pressure”, was selected as a Notable Essay by The Best American Essays 2017.



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