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“That’s the story we’re going to tell”

3 Jul

In the season six finale of Mad Men, Don Draper is making a pitch to Hershey executives that the chocolate bar is synonymous with affection. He threads a familiar yarn about his middle class father who rewarded his yard-mowing with a Hershey bar.

“That’s the story we’re going to tell,” he tells the executives with authority.

Don Draper is always in control of the story. He’s spent his whole life creating that narrative. His career in advertising was built on telling the story people want to hear.

Only it’s not real. It’s a fabrication that tastes like the rush of sugar candy. After the initial buzz, all you can taste are the artificial flavors. After too many Pixy Stix, you feel sick and full of regret.

Draper didn’t have the stomach to control the campaign anymore. He interrupts the satisfied executives with the truth that he was an orphan raised in a whorehouse. He ends his anecdote explaining that the Hershey bar was “the only sweet thing in my life.”

*******

Today the art of professional branding has crossed over into our personal lives thanks to social media. We think we’re in control of the narrative because we craft it so carefully, but is what we’re saying true?

After spending two weeks with journalism advisers as an Association of News Editors (ASNE) fellow in Austin, Texas, I was reminded how much of journalism is listening. The talking heads and hyper-posters seem to miss this. The older I get, and the more experience I have, the less I feel I should talk. This works against my extroverted talky-talky nature. I had to work at this. What is natural for me is listening to people’s stories. But the writer in me needs to write it down.

[The] facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like.

                                                       ********

That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story.

Maya Angelou

In April, I started interviewing people for a personal project on community. I’ve been transcribing these interviews into my Moleskin and trying to decipher them for patterns. This project is a long-game. I don’t know what will come of it, but it’s fascinating to hear people’s tales; I’ve learned more than can be articulated clearly yet. The most important thing this project has done so far is invigorate my love for interviewing and storytelling in general. I am interviewing to understand.

People are relieved to tell their story if they think you want to hear it. I find most people don’t think their story is important or that it’s relevant. Others worry that the truth sounds bad. They’re afraid to say it.

Don Draper’s confession comes at the crux of his own alcoholic breakdown. It took him completely losing control of his own contrived identity to create an honest moment. It was as hard for him to tell as it was for his audience to hear. But never has an audience felt more about a Hershey bar than in that moment. The story told itself precisely because Draper let go of the reigns.

The question then becomes how do you let go? From a journalistic perspective, you can’t have an agenda. You have to listen. If you think you know the story before the interview, you’ll miss the best stuff. My favorite interviews have been with people I didn’t know well, or in some cases had just met. This means the comfort level isn’t there to facilitate free conversation. It forced me to listen deeper. What are they not saying? What do they want to say but are afraid to? What do they need permission to say?

My personal interviews are purely for research and I won’t be citing people specifically in whatever I write in the future. Even in that anonymous context, people still hesitate. Sometimes they feel like they have to make excuses for how they feel. The hardest thing for a person to do is just speak the truth. That’s why stand-up comedians are so important to our culture. The good ones stand up in front of large crowds and say it straight. That’s their selling point. We laugh because we can’t do that. When they hit that nerve we’re relieved.

“She said it so I don’t have to.”

I’m a fairly open person now, but I grew up an incredibly private one. Most of my real thoughts were never spoken aloud. I imagine that’s true of many of the young people I teach. What is not said keeps me up at night.

This is why I’m excited to advise my school’s newspaper next year. I want my staff to tell the real stories of our school. Not the sanitized versions, not the two-minute interview snapshots. The stories that first make people uncomfortable, but eventually help them understand.

One of the first things one of my colleagues said on the first day of the ASNE institute in Austin was “Students aren’t looking for more information. They’re looking for more ways to connect.”

In that moment I knew I didn’t have to change into some kind of Twitter-happy news hound to advise the newspaper. I could be myself and help the kids tell honest stories. As a young yearbook adviser, I didn’t have the perspective I do now. I was more concerned with not offending people, and pleasing everyone in the school. I’m sure I missed many chances to connect because I saw the book as a publicity tool instead of communication tool.

Stunned by Draper’s childhood admission, one of the Hershey executives asks, “Do you want to advertise that?”

Draper responds, “If I had my way, you would never advertise. You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is. He already knows.”

We all know. We just need to see it in print.

 

Show your shame

12 May

The other morning my car wouldn’t start, so I had to take my husband’s to work. He winced when he offered me the car.

“It’s the worst it’s ever been.”

I didn’t have time to worry about that, so I climbed into the front seat, shoved a board out of the way and hooked the handle of my coffee mug onto the butterfly net riding shotgun with me. I clicked on NPR and ignored the empty Powerade bottles and gym shorts with the tags still on them next to me. Before I exited the car and headed into school, I glanced into the back seat to find a halogen light, rubbermaid containers filled with rolled up strips of cardboard, a beekeeper’s veil, and a 4 x 250 ft roll of laminating plastic. I didn’t even open the trunk, but it was filled with at least two dozen coconuts. photo(5)

Later in the morning I received the following text:

“After seeing my car at its worst, do you still want to be married to me?”

My husband was horrified that I’d seen his shame. It’s the same reason he gets uncomfortable if I walk on his side of the bed because it means I might trip on clothes, comic books, empty boxes, a suitcase, or general trash.

The only difference between his shame and mine is that I keep mine off the floor. I prefer to put it in a closet or on top of a dresser.

This whole anecdote got me thinking. Everyone needs a corner of shame. No matter how much we gloss up the outside to look organized and healthy, our humanness dictates that we allow ourselves a place for disgrace. A place we pray no one will accidentally discover. Because if we know they’re coming, we’re going to clean it up first.

What we present to the outside world is often not our complete truth. But we write it as if it were. The internet is full of “how to live your best life!” advice and tutorials. The mecca of these places is Pinterest. If you’re not DIY-ing your sugar-free life of quinoa recipes while doing squats on your Chevron-print rug, you’re not really living.

DIY Burlap Wreath!

#Eat Clean

#Abs

Homemade gluten-free bagels!!

How to organize your jewelry with wine corks.

DIY Toddler Adirondack chair with Anchor Decal (adult version comes with wine holders!)

DIY Mason Jar Herb Garden

I am not against any of these things separately, but when presented all together as prescriptions for living “happier and healthier,” I carve out a space to eat Cheez-its and watch Oprah in protest. Pinterest has upped stress in the lives of many, but I still find it useful for ideas I turn into reality, especially recipes and home improvement inspiration. The key is to focus on the things you want in your life, not the things other people want.

This is difficult because people present these options as all-or-nothing propositions. You’re either eating clean or eating dirty. Fit or lazy. Crafty and DIY or unskilled and materialistic. Organic parents or mainstream parents. They forget it’s possible to be both at different times. I think it’s because we try to convince ourselves by convincing others.

In my quest for the best workout routine, I’ve found the path of least resistance has been the easiest to maintain. The go hard-or-go-home approach is only sustainable for so long. For periods of time in my life, I’ve exercised and lifted weights obsessively; I’ve become a regular runner; I’ve taken three exercise classes in one day. I could not be stopped. Until I stopped completely. Which happened every time.

Now I’m at a period in my life where I feel like I’m doing the least amount of regular exercise, but I’ve been able to maintain the same weight the best this way. I take a weight and cardio class at least once a week, I started doing push-ups every day, and I cook healthy meals. I walk/bike/run to supplement but it’s in moderate amounts. We use our rare night of eating out to indulge in more high-calorie foods, and we eat dessert more than I ever have in my life. Small amounts at a time, but more frequently. My next feat is to work this kind of manageable routine into my job and my writing life.

While I understand the need to present our best selves publicly, I respect people more who aren’t afraid to show their corner of  shame. Or they’re terrified but go through with it in order to better themselves. I am working to develop this type of openness as I’m less and less interested in looking good and more interested in feeling good and actually being good at something.

When I moved out of my house in Richmond, I was horrified for people to see my “room of shame” upstairs. After two friends helped me start to clear it out, I felt more motivated to cipher through the rest of the house. By showing them my shame, it removed the stigma and I was able to move forward. Me seeing my husband’s car motivated him to clean it out and get the air-conditioning fixed just a week later.

I’ve been mulling over this post for the past couple of weeks (and not writing it), then today I watched a Creative Mornings talk author Austin Kleon gave in Austin, Texas. His talk is about showing your work online instead of waiting until the perfect finished product is unveiled. His talk is about honesty in the creative process. His talk is very similar to what I wanted to write this post about. He has an insanely bigger internet audience than I do, but I like to think my emphasis on shame over work makes this unique?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing people about their transitions in life, and by slowly understanding how people overcome obstacles, be they self-inflicted or outwardly-inflicted, I’m getting a deeper understanding of how to actually cut away what you don’t want in your life.

I believe you have to cut away to create.

You can’t create anything while hiding in your corner of shame.

What it means to be silent

18 Dec

When I was a senior in college, I traveled to the Bronx, NY, to interview for a job as a community organizer. During the interview process (which lasted all weekend), one of the organizers spoke to us about why she left her career as a stage manager to become an organizer. She said something that made such a huge impression on me that I re-evaluated everything I knew to be true.

“Art doesn’t bring social justice.”

This put two of my most cherished ideals in conflict. I was the English major who’d devoted time each summer since the age of 13 to ending hunger and homelessness. I read poetry and I gleaned corn. I studied Shakespeare and the reasons for domestic and global hunger.  I became a vegetarian. I recycled. I volunteered at the local homeless shelter when I could.

I also auditioned (unsuccessfully) for plays, read my poems at open mic nights, and took in all the live music I could get my ears on.  I decided to major in English while loving every last word of a mythology poem. If I could savor each word so specifically, what was I doing majoring in psychology or sociology? Even after I declared, I had no real plan. Someone just said, “major in the thing you love the most.” When you make it that simple, it becomes an easy choice. I finally decided to be a teacher while reading a book. Every decision I’ve made that seems to fit me has come from following my heart.

Being a community organizer was something I felt like I should try. It seemed like a tough but important opportunity. So when that woman said art didn’t change anything, I took it personally. Not  because I owned art or even considered myself a part of art, but I definitely believed art changed people because it changed me.

But I was 21 years old, optimistic and impressionable, and I thought this meant that I couldn’t have it both ways: I couldn’t pursue feats of imagination when people lacked food and shelter. If I was serious about wanting to “change the world,” I had to choose.

Dear 21-year-old me: That woman lied!

The only thing that changes complicated political/cultural/social barriers is Art.

Art and service to each other.

It’s not partisan activist groups.

It’s not unions.

It’s not xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, or tribalism.

It’s not gun control Facebook fights.

It’s not passive aggressive gratitude posts.

It’s not gloating after your side wins an election.

It’s not a lot of things that pretend to change the world.

The world is changed one person at a time, over long periods of time.

Back in May of 2011, comedian Marc Maron interviewed Garry Shandling on his podcast and the two were discussing solutions to political and spiritual dilemmas. Maron, who once worked for the now-defunct Air America talk radio, speaks about turning away from politics because he came to believe people’s real problems were more existential than political. I take that to mean that we need to grapple with our own decision-making (free will) versus picking a side or a team.

Garry Shandling said maybe the only thing that could transcend those differences is art.

Marc Maron said maybe the only thing that could change things is heart.

“I think it’s heart,” Maron repeated softly, with a vulnerability that makes you listen closer.

Others might say faith.

I was taken right back to that moment of truth from my youth when I thought I had to pick a side.

It’s a false choice.

I didn’t end up getting that job as an organizer. Thank goodness. I would have spent that entire year trying to be someone I am not. Someone too cynical about “reality” to honor the power creativity has in lifting the most burdened body or soul.

“We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.”

–Ray Bradbury

If ever a person was in love with the world, it was our recently departed Bradbury. He put a microscope on the truth, then he moved forward in pursuit of joy.

The fire was gone, then back again, like a winking eye. He stopped, afraid he might blow the fire out with a single breath. But the fire was there and he approached warily, from a long way off. It took the better part of fifteen minutes before he drew very close indeed to it, and then he stood looking at it from cover. That small motion, the white and red color, a strange fire because it meant a different thing to him. 

It was not burning. It was warming.

He saw many hands held to its warmth, hands without arms, hidden in darkness. Above the hands, motionless faces that were only moved and tossed and flickered with firelight. He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take.

****************

There was a silence gathered all about that fire and the silence was in the men’s faces, and time was there, time enough to sit by this rusting track under the trees and look at the world and turn it over with the eyes, as if it were held to the center of the bonfire, a piece of steel these men were all shaping. It was not only the fire that was different. It was the silence.

  –Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

There is too much talking right now and not enough silence. In honor of those 20 children in Connecticut, and the adults who tried desperately to save them, I choose to listen before I speak. I choose to celebrate service before I give an audience to hatred. Those teachers, among whom could have been my own sister and one of my dearest friends, did what teachers do every day. They protect their students, they expose them to art, history, science, math, literature: they give them a glance into something bigger than themselves.

When I was in second grade, my teacher said to me: “You like writing, don’t you?”

Yes, yes I do.

Pssst, your ego is showing

22 Jan

I often read with a writer’s eye. I am drawn to honest writers, those not afraid to expose their weaknesses in favor of improvement. Precisely because I know how difficult that is to do. Fiction or nonfiction, honest characters are necessary. Anything that feels contrived repels me. I haven’t always been outwardly honest. Not necessarily a liar, just afraid to be myself on paper. Okay, I lied a little. You know, the story of everyone’s youth ever. What startles me is how many adult writers refuse to be honest. They write from a place of ego but don’t think anyone will notice.

Dude, we totally notice.

You think you’re making yourself look good but we can tell you’re faking it. I know this because I’ve faked it so hard! I have stories and poems and files of bullshit I’d love to share with you, but that would make me look bad. Plus it was necessary practice. It’s how everyone has to do it–imitate first, then create your own voice.

How do you write without ego? I’m not sure that’s completely possible, but you’ve got to be motivated by something other than your ego. The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten is to write the book you want to read. I always want to read books that give me a new perspective, pieces that put words to something I’ve always felt but hadn’t formulated into syllables yet. I want to feel connected and inspired.

When you write to prove something, always wearing your self-righteous hat, I’m unconnected and irritated. Why did you invite me here to your ego party? I’d rather be watching TV. I’ve read blogs where the writer is so so impressed with himself  that he forgot to teach the reader anything. The whole post is explaining what he is capable of doing, and never what he’s actually done. Or writers quote something  they think makes them sound smart, but anyone who actually is smart knows it says nothing. It’s the opposite of Orwell’s simplified Newspeak; it’s Obtusespeak. Readers know you’re hiding behind your big words. We can tell you’re afraid.

I should add here that the self-righteous hat was once a staple of my wardrobe. Professional high-horse rider, right here. I thought I was being bold, brave, standing up for injustice! I was actually just annoying. And overly critical of things because it was easier than figuring myself out. Plus I got to feel superior and feed my ego. So the opposite of growth.

It’s also easy to be critical and snarky. I should know, I used to dole out snark like business cards. The challenge is to be raw and honest–the only thing that’s interesting.

Louis CK, a brilliant comedian who writes, directs, and edits his own material, awes me with his honesty. Blows me away with his creativity. But it’s his ability to write material that speaks to the most humiliating aspects of human nature that makes people love his work. He’s not afraid to put a microscope on the darkest parts of himself. Jonah Weiner wrote this great profile of CK, which explores his humility, work ethic, and his boundary-pushing comedy. His honesty often takes a turn towards the inappropriate and grotesque, though, so sensitive souls should probably look away.

Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, is a humor blogger turned book author who is also wildly inappropriate (a theme, perhaps?). While she is one of the funniest writers on the internet, she’s also incredibly honest, which makes her followers connect with her. Because her website gets millions of hits a month, she recently shared her struggles with depression and specifically self-harm, hoping to reach out to others to let them know they’re not alone. This led to a Twitter-fueled Traveling Red Dress campaign where strangers donated red ball gowns to women in need of a fancy night out. There was also a flood of “silver ribbons” hash tags which denoted tweets from fellow sufferers she had reached. She’s also written eloquently about her ongoing battle with rheumatoid arthritis. She’s able to remove her hilarious and irreverent tone in favor honest connections with real people. While it may be “too much information” for some readers, it’s a risk she believed was worth taking. She doesn’t let her ego rule her writing.

Please don’t confuse honesty with spilling all your secrets. I’ll never be raw in the same way as CK and Lawson, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be honest. We all have to do what feels natural for us, but still live just a little outside our comfort zone. Safe is always boring.

I want this post to be more than a YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG lecture. Because we all do it wrong until we learn better. If you don’t want to read boring, then don’t write boring. As a teacher, that’s the easiest thing to notice because we’re always grading the papers. The challenge is to take our own advice. That’s often the gulf–we’ll criticize the heck out of boring and not good enough, but then we sit in front of that computer screen and get just as paralyzed as our students.

I used to write all the time, then I let teaching writing get in my way. I let my job as a publication adviser and English teacher make me so “busy” that I didn’t have time to write. It was more that I didn’t make time to write.

The more I read, the more I write; and the more I write, the more I have to say. And the more I say, the less afraid I am to say it. I’m done making excuses now. If I’m boring you, it’s my fault. And I will keep writing until you’re interested.

My ego can’t take the alternative.

What to learn from what you don’t finish

14 Jul

I have a WordPress dashboard full of unfinished blog posts. I thought the reason I didn’t finish them is because I’m more in love with ideas than follow through. I felt like a blogger failure. But then I remembered I’m more than beginnings, and have a year of developed posts to prove it.

The reason I didn’t finish those posts is because I don’t want to write about those topics anymore. They were ideas I thought better of: I lost my inspiration to finish and since this blog is free, why should I? Here’s a look at how I can’t always finish what I start:

Failed Post #1: “Things on Facebook I find moderately irritating”

An excerpt:

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for lists. One of my favorites is a piece CNN did back in 2009 on the 12 most annoying types of Facebook personalities. I’ve tried very hard not to become one of them but in my early social networking days (you know, back in ’09), I might have come close to “the Obscurist,” that person who thinks everyone is watching the same show or reading the same article or who lives on the same brainwave as he or she does. One of the examples CNN gives is the actual status update from someone reading “small world.” I am 92% sure that was my status update.

Maybe you read this before IN EVERY ARTICLE ALREADY WRITTEN ABOUT FACEBOOK. And by excerpt, I meant that was all I wrote.  File under overdone.

Failed post #2: “‘Outside in’ doesn’t always mean ‘open book'”

Excerpt:

What matters more to you, how you look on the outside, or how feel on the inside? The better question is where do you start first: outside or in? If you want to feel good, do you clear off your desk and get organized? Do you create a beautiful garden or remodel your deck? If so, you’re outside-in. You need to get all the outside stuff in check to clear your head enough to deal with what’s inside your head.

It went on to describe how I’m inside-out. Turns out this post was over my own head. File under lame.

Failed post #3: “Your career is a rubber band ball.”

This one was promising, relevant even. I even researched the biggest rubber band ball to extend the metaphor (9,032 lbs). But it turns out I don’t want to write about careers anymore. Or rubber bands.

Excerpt:

One band by itself is useful for holding together a few things, but if you try to bind too many things with it, it breaks. A single band can also be used as a device of pain and annoyance. Or it’s just a colorful circle laying on your table or wrapped around a door knob. If you wrap enough of  those bands around each other, though, they form a ball of force that rolls. But when you’re faced with a bunch of pink, purple, and white bands by themselves, they make you want to cry. Or flick others with them to ease your pain.

I went on to explain how each band is one of your talents or skills and if you put them all together. . . zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Sorry, I fell asleep just recounting this. By the way, the rubber band guy (who is from Lauderhill, FL, just around the corner from me) made enough money from selling his ball to Ripley’s Believe it or Not that he can fund his next world record: longest time spent as a human fireball. Maybe he should write about careers. File my post under too much metaphor.

Failed post #4: “Love in the time of mangoes”

This one is just a title. That’s how unfinished. Jerry Seinfeld said he picked the title of Bee Movie long before he knew what it would be about. I knew more than that: I thought I wanted to write about what I learned from cooking a different mango recipe each night during the month of June. Then I went on vacation to Colorado and this is not a food blog. But I still cook every night now (even though “Mango Month” is over). I already have meals planned through the weekend (and groceries purchased). Even recycled recipes so I don’t waste food.  Okay, I promised this wasn’t going to turn into a food blog. Unless I start writing about how I’m cooking my way through sadness. But that’s too Like Water for Chocolate for this venue. But I did love that book. And the movie. *sigh* File under two Latin literary allusions don’t make a right.

Sometimes you fail because you were doing it wrong. And sometimes you fail because your idea just plain sucked. The latter is harder to admit to yourself because at the time you conceived that idea, it was genius. Then you start telling other people about it and you feel like you have to stick with it even though you know you’re better. And it’s not that my almost-posts were hideous; in fact, they were almost-good. They just weren’t good enough to keep me interested past the first two paragraphs. That’s where most of us dwell, in almost-good. This often feels like failure, which is why so many of us give up before we get to good (or excellent or inspirational).

I used to tell my students they had to write the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. Writing the perfect phrase never happens until you’ve written tons of mediocre ones before it. Creating the perfect publication or project never happens without a parade of almosts.

Maybe today I have to tell myself the same. Past every boring idea lurks a better one that will inspire me. Just keep putting pen to paper. This is where the rubber band ball meets the road.