When she was about eight years old, Maya Angelou stopped speaking. She thought her voice had killed a man. For almost six years, she only talked to her older brother, Bailey.
Like Darlena Williams-Burnett, author of Living History, they’d endured a tumultuous childhood in the Jim Crow South. Deep-seated racism exacerbated feelings of being rejected and abandoned by their parents. After getting divorced, they put the children on a train and sent them to live with their paternal grandmother, who they called Momma, in rural Arkansas. Angelou was just three years old.
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you
They eventually went to live with their mother and her live-in boyfriend, who sexually abused Maya. She testified against him. He was convicted and sentenced to a year and a day in prison but was released later that afternoon. Four days later, he was found beaten to death, likely at the hands of her uncles.
Angelou, who was then seven-and-a-half, worried her words had killed him.
She described her coming-of-age story in what became a critically acclaimed memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book was published in 1969 when Angelou was 41. She knew the weight of an untold story. She also looked at her life and saw its worth.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was Angelou’s first book—and best-known work, which not only allowed her to reclaim her voice but also cemented her influential status as a poet, author, and activist. She went on to write six more memoirs, seven children’s books, seven plays, two cookbooks and a number of personal essays and poems.
Writing her life story helped Angelou transform trauma into triumph. While she’s reached a certain level of fame, Angelou certainly isn’t the only one to draw lessons from lived experiences. A few years ago, author Sandra Marinella used writing to grieve and heal after a breast cancer diagnosis. In her book, The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss, Marinella writes, “In facing our shattered life stories, we must reach deep inside our pain—for it is here that we can break our silence and find our new voice.”
It took Angelou a few decades to find her voice—and it was a winding road to get there. At fifteen, Angelou broke barriers to become the first African American streetcar conductor in San Francisco. At sixteen, she hid her pregnancy from her family for eight months and graduated from high school. And that’s where her first book ends—at motherhood.
Your story isn’t over. It’s just beginning. The process of profound reflection is available to you at any time. All of us have the capacity to communicate and create something out of nothing if only we dare to speak up instead of suffering in silence. By committing your thoughts to writing, you have the power to make sense of what’s happened in your life, draw meaning from it, and move forward with more insight and understanding. And who knows? Your story may stand to inspire someone else.
Don’t carry the pain. Do something with it.