“Let me tell you a story.” That’s how my talk began last month at Furman University’s TEDx conference. The topic was “Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.”
I’d spent almost a year prepping for those 16 minutes. Writing, editing, and rewriting my talk. Memorizing it and rehearsing it morning, noon, and night for months till my husband, my dog, and my best friend had just about memorized it, too. A kind friend even gathered 30 generous souls in her living room to listen to it, so I could get the feeling of an audience in my bones. Then there was picking out the right thing to wear, a particularly arduous undertaking for someone like me who hates shopping and basically wears the same thing every single day.
It all came together beautifully. When the day finally arrived, sure I was nervous. But as I stepped onto the stage, the audience looked up at me, the camera started rolling, and voila! the presentation went perfectly.
Boring, right? There’s no real story there. It’s just a bunch of things that happened. Who cares? Plus, it sounds kind of like bragging. And like maybe I’m hiding something. Could it really be that simple and straightforward?
[pullquote]One thing is for sure: the party line is always boring. Why? Because there’s nothing for us to be curious about, nothing to anticipate. No inside intel we could use, no surprising revelation, no unexpected moment, nothing that takes us beneath the suspiciously smooth surface.[/pullquote]
If only! But it’s so tempting to tell it that way. Even though it then comes across as just another version of that sugar-coated story we’ve all heard a gazillion times: “I had a goal, I worked hard, I succeeded.” Yadda, yadda, yadda, in other words, the party line. And we all know that when it comes to party lines, the defining factor is that at best they’re a gross oversimplification, and at worst, a downright lie. One thing is for sure: the party line is always boring. Why? Because there’s nothing for us to be curious about, nothing to anticipate. No inside intel we could use, no surprising revelation, no unexpected moment, nothing that takes us beneath the suspiciously smooth surface. And that’s not what we come to story for. The surface world? We’ve got that covered! Because that’s what the surface world does, it covers up the far more messy, challenging, juicy, and intriguing world going on underneath. We come to story for a glimpse of exactly that: what goes on beneath the surface.
Which can be really hard to write about, whether it’s fact or fiction, because it’s crazy scary to step out of “never let ‘em see you sweat” territory. But that’s what stories are about. Sweating.
So, what if instead of the tidied up version I just told you, I went on and revealed . . . the truth. (This is really hard.)
. . . yeah, my presentation did go perfectly, for about three minutes. And then I went totally, completely blank.
I was doing great, felt great, I thought, Wow, I’m doing it, this is working, and then I got to the end of a sentence and . . . nothing. I drew a total blank. I had no clue what came next. It wasn’t even at a turning point or a segue, where I might have been able to fake something. I was smack in the middle of a paragraph that, ten seconds ago, I knew by heart.
It’s over, I thought, my palms instantly icy. I spent a year planning for this, everyone knows I’m here, they’ll see the tape, and (this is the worst part) they’ll feel sorry for me. And nothing else will matter – not the ideas I want to spread, not my hard work, not my new black pants.
I tasted ashes.
The thing is, I thought I’d planned for every contingency. I knew I might stumble. Who doesn’t? “It makes you seem human,” my coach said. “Doesn’t matter if you forget a word or a line, or accidentally jump to the wrong place, just make a joke, smile, move on.”
That made sense. It happened enough when I rehearsed that I almost wished I would stumble, you know, so I could seem more human. In a good way.
But there’s one thing you can’t prepare for: the unexpected. Or as good old Donald Rumsfeld would say, the unknown unknown. I hadn’t planned for going completely and totally blank, or how utterly paralyzing it would feel, because it’s not something you can plan for. That’s something only experience can teach. I knew there was only one thing I could do: stall for time and hope my brain would come back online.
So while my mind ran in terrified circles in my way-too-tight-feeling skull, my mouth, seemingly on its own, said, “And the point is . . .”
What point? Where did that come from? When should I tell them I don’t know what the point is, or where I am, or . . .
“And the point is . . .”
Oh my god, the audience knows I’m lost. Why did I ever tell anyone I was doing this? Why AM I doing it? This is so hard. Too hard. I’m going to have to stop and tell them I have no idea what I’m talking about.
“And the point is . . .”
And then it came back. In a flood. Verbatim. Somehow, I managed to create a makeshift segue from “and the point is” – a phrase that was not in my talk at all — to the actual point I was about to make. The whole thing unfolded over a period of three excruciatingly long seconds.
Three seconds of pure panic had tanked a year of work.
Yet I knew in my bones that I had to carry on as if it had never happened. I put everything I had into those 13 remaining minutes, even though I was afraid, even though my mouth was maddeningly dry, even though the whole time I was thinking, people will watch those three minutes online, get to the part where I panic, then quickly click to something else, like a video of kittens falling off things. I know I would, because I do.
I’ve clicked away in a nanosecond when I sensed that the person giving the presentation was losing it. And for the first time, standing there on stage, I knew why seeing that moment of human fallibility always spooked me: Because if that person could stumble, dither, or suddenly go blank, then I could, too. And that was too uncomfortable to contemplate. So hello, scampering kittens!
But now it had happened to me. I was the one who’d gone blank in public. And as I walked backstage, it hit me — I was still breathing. I’d survived. [pullquote]Expose your deepest fears. Because it’s in that place that your readers will connect with you and come to care about your story.[/pullquote]And hey, maybe the audience wasn’t as unforgiving as I’d been. Maybe my presentation had survived, too.
It turned out a lot of people had no idea I’d messed up at all. One person said, “The way you kept saying, “And the point is . . .” was great, I was on the edge of my seat, dying to find out what the point was.”
And the kindest thing, the thing I’ll always remember, was when the student who’d been in charge of organizing the whole event found me back stage and without missing a beat said, “Don’t worry, we can edit it out.” That made me nearly sob with gratitude.
Now, whether they can actually edit it out remains to be seen, along with whether my expression really should go next to “deer in the headlights” in the dictionary. Either way, I’m not so worried any more.
The, ahem, point is, no matter how it felt to me (truly horrible then, and nerve racking now to be sharing it with you) and no matter what the implications [pullquote]The struggle to survive, to make it through the muck, the unexpected, the messy, is what we live for; it gives us a thrilling sense of purpose, and of being in the moment.[/pullquote]are for me going forward, this is a better story than the one I told you at the top of this piece. It’s better, because it’s the truth. It’s better because it’s a real story and not just a glossed-over recitation of something that happened.
This is a critical point for us all to remember when we’re writing stories, either non-fiction or fiction: get underneath the surface of things. Get down there where people are sweating and where things might be messy for you as a writer. Expose your deepest fears. Because it’s in that place that your readers will connect with you and come to care about your story. Perfect, smooth, glossy things that go swimmingly well? Oh hell, there’s no such thing – that’s the purview of daydreams and the party line. Life is gloriously, rewardingly hard, that’s what makes it worth living. The struggle to survive, to make it through the muck, the unexpected, the messy, is what we live for; it gives us a thrilling sense of purpose, and of being in the moment. Inside intel from the front lines is exactly what we turn to stories for, the grittier the better. Don’t be afraid to give it to us.
Although I admit, it is scary! But here’s my new theory: if you’re not at least a little bit afraid of it, you’re not doing it right.