We Tell Ourselves Stories

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s a great line, and the first line of the first essay in Joan Didion’s THE WHITE ALBUM, published in 1979. In 2006 she used that brilliant line as the title of another book of essays, which is a collection gleaned from her first seven nonfiction books.

No topic is off limits for Didion. She writes about politics and gangs, the Hoover Dam and Georgia O’Keefe, counterculture and permaculture. She wrote bravely about the death of her husband, which was followed by the death of her daughter. She wrote about that too. Didion confronts dichotomy and contradiction head on, and creates heartbreaking portraits of both people and place.

She’s unapologetic and unsentimental. Her observations are astute, her prose is spare, and she untangles life in a way that makes the reader feel she’s looking her in the eye, saying, “I get it.”

There’s this theory in storytelling that the more intimate and personal the detail, the more universal the story becomes. It’s curious, really, and it seems the opposite would be true, but when a storyteller trusts the reader, the reader trusts herself.

I like to craft stories on paper. I’ve been writing a lot this summer, and I love the process of telling a story then cutting it up. I love choosing what to reveal and what to keep hidden, where to be overt and where to be a little bit coy. The end becomes the beginning, there’s a narrative thread for the reader to hang on to, and there are a few twists and turns in the middle. It’s on paper, a permanent record of sorts.

Back in May I did something different. I got up on a stage in front of a few friends and a lot of strangers and I told a story. No notes, not even an index card. I thought about writing on my hand or arm, but figured that would be weird. I practiced a little beforehand, but every time I did I blew it. I went over the allotted ten minutes, I forgot a detail, I told too many details.

When the time came to tell the story I thought about blowing it off, faking sick, or just saying, “I can’t.” I took ballet and tap dance lessons as a kid, and all year I’d practice for the recital and order the costume then I’d back out in the final hour. I’d tell my mother, “I can’t get on that stage,” and she’d say, “You don’t have to.”

At thirty-eight years old it was time to stop making excuses. You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal?” Ten minutes on a stage isn’t a lot. Telling a story about how I met my dog is easy; it’s a story I’ve told many times. But fear is a power deterrent. I started my “story” by talking about how what we’re most afraid of is rejection. I needed to hear my voice tell someone else’s story before I could tell my own. Wrap your head around that one. {My friend Heather wrote a great blog post on fear yesterday. It’s good stuff. Check it out here.}

For some public speaking is no big deal, but we all have our things. I know people who dig in their heels like a dog headed to the bathtub if they’re pulled onto a dance floor. I know people who are afraid of success, intimacy, and abandonment. You know them too. I know people who are afraid to do things with their bodies while others are afraid of doing things with their minds. Some are afraid of both, rendering themselves paralyzed. People are afraid to speak up, stand out, fall apart.

And then once in a while you have to say, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and you just go for it. I washed and brushed my hair. I had a cocktail and ate a banana. I sat with my friends. I listened to others tell stories and I didn’t run out the back door. Then I got on the stage, said a few things I didn’t mean to and forgot a few things I meant to. And I survived. People laughed, but not at me.

Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” I’m okay with two steps forward one step back, but no steps forward? I’m all full up on that.

I was nervous about what I’d do with my hands while I told a story/freaked out on stage, and I had a dog biscuit in my pocket from Bernice’s bakery which I fingered like a worry stone while I spoke.

When I was done one of my friends let Lucky off his leash (we’d smuggled him in after intermission) and he found his way to the stage, but was terrified to go up the steps. Marc Moss, the mastermind behind the event (TELL US SOMETHING)  encouraged Luck up the steps, but it turns out the stage fright apple didn’t fall far from the tree. We can both ham it up just fine among friends, but on a stage…hell no!

Then I remembered the treat. I pulled it out of my pocket and Luck found the courage to make his stage debut. Here we are. When I first saw this picture I wondered what I was doing with my arm, then I saw my sweet boy reaching up for his prize.


And finally, last but not least, here’s a link to the podcast for my story called “Picked By Luck.” 

You can explore several dozen Tell Us Something podcasts HERE and you can support future storytellers by showing up at the Top Hat on October 9th. The topic is “Forgiveness.” Um, what’s not to like? Ok then, see you there.

“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” Jim Morrison 

Love and Trust

“Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Your courageous spirit helps make Missoula a great place.”

This is the thank you note I received (along with a book, a journal, and a “Reading is Sexy” sticker) from the University of Montana bookstore the other night after I told my story at Tell Us Something. So I send a thank you back to the bookstore and to Missoula; without you to listen our stories wouldn’t be told.

It’s an understatement to say that I was nervous in the days leading up to the event, but when it actually came time to get on stage and tell my “I Got Lucky” story I was calm. I forgot some things, but I didn’t pass out, pee myself, or cry. I didn’t run off the stage.

I forgot to talk about Lucky’s Rottweiler/wolf father and his Labrador mother. I forgot to talk about how he was the runt in a litter of eleven. And I forgot to talk about how when the box of puppies were given away at the river he was the only one nobody wanted; he was too little, too meek, too sick looking. Nobody wants to fall in love with a pup that may not make it.

But I did. I loved, I trusted, and it worked out.

I forgot to talk about all of the wonderful people I met when I first moved to Missoula and that even with all of the ups and down of a wild decade I still call the majority of them “friend.” I forgot to talk about how these supportive, loving people helped me locate solid ground and discover the place I’d call home. For a very long time.

Instead of breaking right into my story, I started by talking about a study done at Harvard on what people consider to be the worst possible experience. Public speaking ranks ahead of death or nuclear holocaust. I get it, but the deck seems to be unfairly stacked. How is it that we’d rather be dead (including the annihilation of our entire human civilization) than risk humiliation or rejection?

Does this not seem a little effed up? What is wrong with us?

Next I said that our brains are hard-wired to anticipate disaster, with rejection being one of the primary disasters we fear. I then announced that I’d turn off my cerebral and emotional brains and let my reptilian brain take over so I could tell a story.

I loved that I had the opportunity to tell the story of how Lucky picked me to be his mama just three days before our tenth anniversary. It makes a girl think, this business of ten years, and to be honest I’m not entirely sure what all to make of it. All I know is that I’m the lucky one.

I know that Lucky dog has been and will continue to be the best teacher I ever had. We went for a night run together last night in the misty rain just as it was getting dark. He had steak for breakfast and he’ll have ice cream as a mid-day snack.

On our tenth anniversary I’m simply going to try to be the person my dog thinks I am.