So Far Beyond My Dreams

New clothes arrived, not just for summer, but that fit this new season I find myself in.

New clothes arrived, not just for summer, but that fit this new season I find myself in.

There is a long list of things to do today, and I know before the day begins that they will not all get done. It's raining out, I'm brewing a second cup of tea and wanting more than anything just to write a note to you. 

A few days ago I was catching up with an old story-telling, film-loving friend whom I hadn't seen in a couple years.  He asked me how I came to make a documentary, and I proceeded to tell him a string of about twenty short stories that somehow link together to get me where I am today. It was so awkward and bumbling, in a way, that he joked, "Don't worry--I'm not judging your storytelling," and we laughed.

I feel like I've been cocooning, as if the strands of a hundred moments and memories and longings have been weaving together something new. And not just a new work, but a new way I get to know myself in the world that is so far beyond anything my young self ever dared to dream that it catches up to me in unexpected moments and steals my breath away. 

My eyes brim with tears when the Red Hot Chili Peppers come on in a cafe and I am at once on a hilltop in the park with my friends and a pile of bicycles, the last year before we all got summer jobs, blaring the same song from a boom box. (Remember those?) I am that girl again, but I am also this woman sitting in Tribeca across from a peer who inspires and ignites me and my companion is sharing something so deep that I have snap my attention and presence back to right now and tuck the tears into my back pocket for some other moment.

A moment like this one, when the house is quiet and the rain is falling, and I'm wearing new clothes like a new skin I grew into when I wasn't looking. There is just me, and the quiet, and a hundred moments and memories that I long to pull into focus, to tell you, and to even understand for myself. How that girl who once thought an artist was an occupation for one special person in town got to be this person living in this place with these amazing people all around and work that makes her weep with gratitude.

The story is so hard to tell while I am still living it, but I am tucking every memory, every twist and turn into my back pocket for some other moment.

For some day to come.

In case you missed yet, yesterday I posted a short video on Being Seen and Finding Kindreds. Check it out! 

On Holy Terror, Fear and Trembling

Photo by Katrina Noble, temporary tattoo by Chickadee Road

Photo by Katrina Noble, temporary tattoo by Chickadee Road

Documentary film update: I've officially hit the holy terror part of this project.

I know this feeling intimately--it's the same feeling I get when I'm working on a new story to tell onstage. It starts sometime after I say yes, after the event is announced, after people expect me to show up and deliver. It waits until I have a table full of parts and like some mystery mechanic I try to assemble them together for the first time.

I step back and see that it is all wrong, that it either doesn't hold together or doesn't stay together, or at best it looks good but is completely not operational.

That's when I get very quiet and wish my body could fold inside itself like those tiny notes we passed around the schoolyard, folded into wads the size of thimbles.

Maybe this is the time I don't pull it off. The thought sticks to me like a bad dream that still feels real after waking. It makes my body feel heavy, my movements slow and my breath shallow.

I'm not just afraid of looking bad publicly. It's true--the thought doesn't warm me, but in my better moments I can leave that out of it.

The bottom line is, I work in service of the story. The idea of not doing a story justice, not distilling out its essence and delivering it in a way that can be received, not getting to that juice that doesn't just entertain or amuse but transforms us--both in the telling and in the receiving--that is my fear, my most holy dread.

It makes my nerves raw. My body looks calm but If you look in my eyes you can see this very primal animal-on-the-run business just leaking out like invisible tears.

I used to mistake this feeling for madness.

I even got myself checked out to be sure.

She said, Do you really think that courage always feels like a cape flapping in the wind on a mountaintop? No. Most of the time it feels like fear and trembling.

That was good news, because I LIVE in the land of fear and trembling.

Okay, Loves, it's Join the Club time. Do you have a holy terror part of your creative cycle? What do you work in service of, and what is it you most fear? Scroll down to join the conversation in the comments, if you're reading via email click here, or pipe in on Facebook.

Ophira Eisenberg Takes Humor and Story from Stage to Page

Photo by  Dan Dion

Photo by Dan Dion

Ophira Eisenberg is one of my favorite comedians and storytellers. I think it's her honesty above all else that wins me over--I feel like she's telling the truth to me because she tells the truth to herself. Her insight, self-reflection and wit are a powerful combination and her new memoir, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy is as thought-provoking and genuine as it is funny.

Ophira is my latest guest on Retrospective. Click here to listen--this is one conversation you don't want to miss.

You can also listen and subscribe in iTunes.

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For more of her storytelling wisdom, check out the Telling Your Story multimedia course, where Ophira is one of the featured instructors.

New Moves and Learning Curves

Photo by Allison Downey

Photo by Allison Downey

Do you ever get this feeling about something, where you just Know You Have That Move?

I tell my friends about the film project, The last time I felt that feeling this strongly was when I started telling stories on stage.

I hadn't done it before, but I knew I had it in me. Before I heard about the stage storytelling scene, I was studying how shows like This American Life were crafting stories for radio. And the very first time I attended a storytelling show, I was ready to put my name the hat. 

Before I'd even seen it done.

It took several weeks of repeating this before my name was finally drawn. We were at The Bitter End, and Dan Kennedy was hosting the annual Valentine's Day-esque show aptly themed "Love Hurts". That year, he'd made Valentines out of black construction paper for each of the storytellers.  (I think I still have mine somewhere.)

The acquaintances I was sitting with kept asking me if I was nervous, knowing my name was in the hat. I wasn't, and I couldn't explain it.

I remember Dan calling my name into the microphone that first time. I remember looking at my red shoes as I stepped up onto the stage and feeling just like Dorothy finally coming home.

It doesn't happen every day or even, in my experience, every year, but from time to time we are blessed with these glimmers or glimpses of being made for a moment. It's as though time suspends for the length of one long breath, and everything that has happened up until right now makes sense.

That's how it felt behind the microphone that first night.

It wasn't all magical ever after--I think sometimes as beginners we are given special graces to ease us into paths we may not have chosen if they had been too bumpy at the start. There was still a lot of craft for me to learn, and the problem posed by live storytelling was that there was no getting better at it privately. I had to be mediocre, over and over again, and publicly--this felt like a slow, tortuous death to my inner perfectionist. It was vulnerable and at times left me feeling shaken up and raw.

I keep thinking of this story in recent days. So many of the other things I've worked at, I've tried making my way up the steep learning curves somewhere away from public view. I've disappeared from this space, for instance, time after time as I taught myself design and layout, as I learned to publish and to produce. I have these long, quiet absences punctuated by these quiet announcements, "It's here!" showing off some final product that often lacks context, as you miss so many of the stories unfolding behind the scenes along the way.

So even though it feels like another slow death to me, I'd like to do as much as I can to bring you the stories unfolding behind the scenes right now as I take on my most ambitious work to date in the short documentary I'm now making. To bring you Notes From The Learning Curve, or something like that.

I'm trusting that you'd rather hear what's happening than not, that you can hold my beginner parts alongside any expertise I may also hold, and that the stories about what we make and why are at least as important as the things we make themselves.

Now, if you want to tell me I'm not alone, I won't stop you. What learning curves are you up against? What are you beginning? Or what move have you not tried yet, but are certain you've got it in you somewhere? (Don't worry--I won't tell.)

Novelist Diana Spechler on Retrospective

I was thrilled to interview Diana Spechler for the Retrospective podcast. Diana is the author of the novels Skinny and Who by Fire, and the truth is: I just plain like her. We met through storytelling here in New York, and last fall had the pleasure of sharing a Moth GrandSLAM stage.

In this episode of Retrospective, Diana talks about:

  • fiction, nonfiction, and where your secrets come out
  • dealing with being seen during a very personal book release
  • "punch and get out" --lessons learned from storytelling
  • keeping ego untangled from the creative process, and
  • wrestling projects into submission.



Listen here, or subscribe to Retrospective in iTunes. You can find previous episodes here.

Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who By Fire (Harper Perennial, 2008) and Skinny (Harper Perennial, 2011). She has written for the New York TimesGQ; O, The Oprah MagazineCNN Living; EsquireNew YorkParis ReviewSelf;Details; the Wall Street JournalSalonSlate;NerveSouthern ReviewGlimmer Train Stories; and elsewhere. She is also a four-time Moth StorySLAM winner and has been featured on NPR. She received her MFA degree from the University of Montana and was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University and the writer-in-residence at Portsmouth Abbey School. A 2012-2013 LABA Fellow, she teaches writing in New York City and for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio.

The Limitations of Black Boot Armor

The Moth GrandSLAM at The Music Hall in Williamsburg, photo by Justin Lee

The Moth GrandSLAM at The Music Hall in Williamsburg, photo by Justin Lee

I thought if I had the perfect outfit, I wouldn't feel so vulnerable up there on stage.

Of course, one part of me is too wise to believe that, but another part of me couldn't help giving it my best shot.

I've been feeling a little angst-y about my clothes lately. Earlier this year I pinpointed some major food intolerances and when I stopped eating them a couple things happened: my skin cleared up for the first time since I was 12, and I dropped a size. Or two. I know that this is a problem that feels like no one has the right to complain about, but it didn't feel good to feel like my body was getting lost in a bunch of extra fabric--it felt like I was disappearing. And I didn't want to disappear on that stage.

So I went out and found some clothes that fit. I had my black boots that make me feel a little badass (not a lot, mind you, just enough). And then it was time to go. I pulled on my first boot and grabbed the zipper, which promptly fell off its track.

I wish I could say that on my way to sound check I am preoccupied with loftier things, but the truth is I was cursing those damn boots and mourning my perfect outfit. I threw on my rain boots, tossed a second pair of shoes in a bag and ran out the door.

On the subway I decided I was also wearing the wrong bra, and it was all I could do to not call Justin while I was going over the bridge and ask him to bring me another. Now you're really being crazy, I thought.

It's not like me to be keyed up about the shows, but this time was different. I was telling a story that happened pretty recently and is still close to the surface. It's also important to me, and I worried that I wouldn't do it justice in the telling. As long as I obsessed over my clothes I could avoid thinking about my story and that final moment when it's just me and a microphone and a whole lotta people listening.

It's easier to walk out into the spotlight with a funny story. I don't have a lot of experience in this department, but it's happened once or twice. I think what is much harder to me is giving the audience a window into my sadness. When I get really quiet alone with myself, or really really true, an ocean of sorrow is there, its tide rocking underneath everything.

Sorrow doesn't rank so highly in the entertainment department, but some stories won't let you go. You have to give up "being bulletproof", as Brené would say, leave behind your black boot armor. The things that are hard to say are just hard to say.

Nothing makes me feel more fortunate than being received by a compassionate audience, or spending a night among friends who let themselves be seen, who create together a night of big belly laughs and damp eyes and the courage to be just as we are, to say even the things that are hard to say.

My friend Micaela Blei won the night with a story that was tender and chilling and fierce, all at once. You can hear an interview with her on Retrospective.