During my first book tour I gave a reading at a conference held in the auditorium of a university. I was terrified of public speaking, and to make it worse, I was completely intimidated by the people I shared the stage with. All of them had many publications under their belts, and many degrees listed in their introductions. I had one book, that was all, and to combat my fear, when it was my turn at the podium, I told the truth about myself. The truth was simple. I worked in a grocery store, and cleaned houses for a living, and had never attended college.
By being on stage with these people I knew it would be easy for a member of the audience to assume that I too had degrees and books plural instead of singular, and I told my story so that I could carry on with the rest of the reading and the weekend without feeling like an imposter, without inadvertently setting up a false impression. I did this as self preservation. The only way to feel comfortable was to be myself, and since no one knew who I was I decided I would tell them. I did not know at the time that this was a radical idea, to speak one’s truth.
Later that night a man who was also part of the presentation asked me why I’d told the audience about the grocery store, and the house cleaning, and the absence of a college education. I answered because it was true. “But why tell them that?” he persisted. “Because it’s true,” I answered again. I was still intimidated and I didn’t want to tell him that being honest helped me to relax.
He narrowed his voice and spoke to me slowly then, as if I were dense and stupid. “What I am trying to tell you,” he said, “is that no one is interested.”
I was shocked, and I was furious. For years I’d wanted to be a writer. I’d attended hundreds of readings and at each one I’d listened to the bios of writers similar to those I shared a stage with. What I concluded was that college was the route to becoming a writer, but I knew that I would never go to college. I would never get a degree. I would never have this in my bio because managing a class load and school and tests were not something I wanted to experience again. If I wanted a degree it was simply to say I had one, simply to impress someone. It wasn’t the getting it that I wanted, it was the having it, and I only wanted to have it to say I had it. And yet I persisted. I wrote. I attended workshops and read, and I managed to write a book that was chosen as a New York Times Editor’s Choice, yet here was a man telling me that no one was interested in how I’d come to stand on a stage next to him, although folks were interested in how he’d come to stand on a stage next to me.
“I disagree,” I told him, and then I avoided him for the rest of the evening.
For years I told this story, and for years people told me that I shouldn’t have been offended, that he meant well, that he was right because I’d led with talking about something I hadn’t done instead of something I had done. I led with a “negative” I was told, but why was my life a negative, and why was working a job something I “hadn’t done” when it was something I did every day?
Now I understand that I had every right to be offended. After all, when someone says to you, “No one is interested,” he is also saying, “Your story does not matter,” and when someone says your story does not matter, he is saying you do not matter.
Which is why I am offended when I hear about professors in MFA programs telling students what they are not allowed to write about. Perhaps there are a lot of stories about robots, and perhaps there are also a lot of stories about sexual abuse, and perhaps it does get tiring hearing about them, but that is no reason to shut these stories down. There is not one story in the world that is unimportant if it is important to the teller. Isn’t it our job as teachers of writing to help guide a beginning writer into how to tell a story, how to make a stranger care about your robot, or the fact that your uncle sneaked into your room when you were five and stuck his thing in your mouth? If it’s not our job to care that a story is told well, then what is our job? To shut down other people who are telling stories we don’t want to hear? To imply by doing this that the story isn’t important? And what stories, pray tell, are important?
I never tell a student what she cannot write about. I have no rules like that. Robots? Bring them on. They’re not my favorite thing but if that is the story you want to tell, I will try to help you tell it well. As for sexual abuse, recovery from drug addiction or alcoholism or breast cancer, time spent homeless or in war or in hiding or as the third wife of a polygamist, are these not stories we should hear? Isn’t the purpose of stories to take us into another world, a world we haven’t experienced? If not this, then why read?
It takes a lot of guts to tell a story, any story. Writing a whole book is a long, long haul. It’s important that a person have something to say before undertaking such a project. In fact, if I have a rule, that would be it. Have something to say.
Stories bring us together. They give the reader or listener a new place to stand from, a new experience, maybe even a new way of looking at things. The purpose of stories is not suppression, it is expression. Shame on anyone for telling another person she cannot tell the story she wants to tell. Shame on the man who told me no one was interested in my story.
What I wish I’d said now is, “You seem mighty interested.”
Love , Nancy