Owning Your Own Story

What happens when we own everything we are?

By ‘owning’, I mean speaking up about the pieces of ourselves that make us unique, without any expectation of praise or pity.

There is no harm in speaking about the pieces of ourselves that we are proud of, and yet doing so does little more than inflate our own egos. The more powerful part of ‘owning’ our story, is speaking about the those pieces that make us feel embarrassed or ashamed. Bringing our greatest weaknesses out of the closet and into the spotlight.

If we are lucky, there is a certain catharsis in doing so, the sense of a burden being lifted. But, perhaps more importantly, there is the potential to form a connection with our listener, or our reader. To show them how fallibly human we are, to crack ourselves open for a moment and make all of us feel a little less alone.

Owning your own storyIt is an idea that I have been thinking about for years, and yet it was thrown into sharp relief this past week, through the lens of anxiety.

First there was Scott Stossel’s article in the Atlantic’s January magazine entitled, “Surviving Anxiety.” A harrowing, hilarious and deeply thoughtful piece about the life he has spent living in the shadow of near-overwhelming fear. Stossel explores his own complicated relationship with therapy and medication, and he invites us to witness some of the most painfully mortifying moments of his life. As Stossel writes, “My anxiety can be intolerable. But it is also, maybe a gift…as often as anxiety has held me back…it has also unquestionably spurred me forward.”

And then, on January 6th, we saw a visceral example of the anxiety that Stossel had described, with film director Michael Bay’s panicked exit from a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The CES audience, followed by over a million Youtube viewers, watched as Michael froze and then almost ran off the stage saying, “Excuse me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Twitter duly trended, and not always in the nicest way. One commenter wrote, “I’ve often wanted to walk out of a Michael Bay [movie]…Can’t blame him for seizing the opportunity.” A few, more charitable souls expressed sympathy at that too familiar sensation of panicked stagefright.

Later that day Bay wrote on his blog:

“Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing. But I’m doing a special curved screen experience with Samsung and Transformers 4 footage that will be traveling around the world.”

I wonder if the public’s reaction to Bay would have been different if he had written more genuinely about his fear, and rather less about advertising a product? It is hard to know but it is clear that the reaction to Stossel’s article was overwhelming empathetic, with the Atlantic inviting readers to submit their own stories of anxiety and running a longform piece detailing many of their stories.

Much like the Atlantic, I am excited to launch a place on my site for people to share their stories about difference, stuttering, vulnerability and identity. I invite you all to share your stories here.

By far the best part of publishing Out With It has been the hundreds of messages I have received from people telling me how my story made them feel less alone. And yet I believe that is just the beginning of the conversation. I believe that together we can create a compendium of what it means to live with ourselves, we can reach out and connect with one another.

As Stossel writes so profoundly in his conclusion, “in weakness and shamefulness is also the potential for transcendence, heroism or redemption.”

I invite you all to start owning your stories today at http://www.outwithitbook.com/communityvoices

Talking

I spend most of my days thinking and writing about talking. Today more than most perhaps. Today is the last day of National Stuttering Awareness Week.

stuttering awareness week

On the subway, I watch a father tell quiet stories to his daughter, her fingers twisting around his, her legs kicking her brother next to her as he leans towards them to catch every word.

As I wait for a friend to arrive for coffee I watch two women snorting with laughter, their arms gesticulating, their knees leaning in to one another, their glasses raised and lowered as they listen for the start of some new joke in a language I can’t decipher.

I see a couple sitting next to each other, reading the paper. Swapping sections, pointing at a story, passing a cup of coffee, all without a word.

In my own conversations, I feel myself relax into a laughter-filled Skype call with an old friend. I feel the way our cadence begins to morph and mirror each other, the way we slide into old jokes that take me back to house-parties and lazy dinners.

I feel the pinpricks of nerves in my fingertips as I sit on a high stool and look into the kind, open-eyes of an interviewer, the heat of the lights and the dark presence of camera lens crowding us. I feel sweat break out in miniature beads on my forehead and feel my voice break into the silence between us. In my head, I hear my friend Michelle encouraging me to make believe that the cameras aren’t there, that I’m just having a chat with this lovely woman, as you do, on a high chair, in a bookstore, with everyone watching.

I look down at my champagne flute and take my last sip as I look out at an audience I can barely see. I tell myself, for the hundredth time that I should wear glasses for my book signings, so I can see the people beyond the first row. I shift my weight and feel my hands begin their familiar propulsion as I tell everyone the end of my story. I look at Jeremy, at the grin on his face, as I tell the eager mass of an audience some of our love story. I lean into the warmth of their generous laughter, I feel it release something in me. I carry on speaking, and stuttering, and gratefully answering their questions. I lean against the bar and try to burn the moment on to my memory.

At home I write about stuttering, about the visceral experience of talking. I enjoy the quiet, the calming sound of the controlled voice in my head, the ability to escape into the realm of my own mind for a while. Then I feel the silence of the room weigh on me and pick up the phone, I walk outside and talk about the weather with a neighbour. I get home and I read this story. I laugh at all the familiar fears and all the familiar reactions. I feel proud to be connected to this man, if only tenuously through our speech.

We speak to others to tell them that we love them, to make ourselves heard, to learn from each other or to meet another’s mind. Each of us has a distinct voice, a unique way of reaching out and connecting with the world. Today is as good a time as any to remember how beautiful that is.

Where language leads

When I was little Easter was my favourite time of year.

It was a time of hot cross buns, enough chocolate to send me into a sugar coma and puddles large enough to jump into with my wellies. It was the moment when winter seemed to be disappearing and I could celebrate my birthday with the knowledge that the long summer holiday wasn’t too far away.

For the first 8 years of my life, it was also a time for easter egg hunts at my grandma’s house. Amid the blooming bluebells and daffodils of her garden, my grandma would hide riddle after riddle. As soon as we arrived, my parents and I would be handed the first clue and we’d rush out to the garden to find the next. As we uncovered each new riddle from the dirt we’d read them loud enough for my grandma to hear as she watched us, smiling from the chair of her sitting room.

I wish that I’d stashed these small, handwritten notes in my pocket. At the time they seemed like a ticket into a very adult world of hidden meanings. They were my first introduction to the beauty and malleability of language.

I remember my mum laughing, my dad running across the garden and their gentle hints as they guided me towards the final chocolate egg. I remember scarfing down the creamy chocolate sitting on her kitchen counter as my grandma carefully laid the crust over her apple pie.

I haven’t been to an easter egg hunt in years, I can’t remember any since my grandma died. But the memory of the excitement I felt holding my her handwriting, my awareness of the hours she put into creating each riddle, hasn’t left me.

These days my traditions have changed. I still get the puddles and the hot cross buns, but I have new things like Passover and my fiancé’s birthday. Still I feel like I am carrying on some family tradition, I feel like all those riddles, all that love of language, has lead me somewhere that I could have only dreamed of a child.

This year I get to celebrate the release of my book. Coincidentally the pub date is my birthday so we will be kicking off spring with a big party. Sadly there won’t be any riddles or chocolate eggs, but I’d love you to come and celebrate with me nevertheless.

Book Launch: Putting down the pen and picking up the mic

With my book launch mere weeks away (I’d love to see any and all of your lovely faces there) I’ve been finding myself at more literary events than normal around the city. I’ve ventured out of my pajamas to go to readings, book release parties and meetups.

All-in-all it has been both fascinating and terrifying. Mostly because it makes me fully aware of how brilliant other writers can be, how eloquent and funny and intelligently they can string together their thoughts in front of a room of eager faces.

Public speaking is one thing but spontaneously answering questions in a witty and thoughtful way, a way that reflects both your personality and your writing, is a talent I’m not entirely sure I can emulate.

A couple weeks ago I went to McNally Jackson bookstore for their Conversations on Practice interview with David Shields. I’ve been intrigued by the series for a while but I went specifically because of David. I interviewed him for my book years ago and have been deeply influenced by both his words and his mindset ever since.

It is hard to describe David’s writing accurately. In his words, “literal collage has become the form that releases my best intelligence”. Having heard him speak, it is clear why. David thinks in associations, even as he answers questions about his work he draws on quotes from authors, scenes from films and references to art exhibitions. His aim is to eliminate any façade and in his speaking, much like his writing, he has no qualms mentioning everything from his stutter to his cheat sheet. He casually brushes off the over-polished veneer that it is all too tempting to hide behind.

In a different vein, I attended Leigh Newman’s book launch for her just-released memoir Still Points North. Over an evening of champagne and Alaskan salmon (Newman’s book recalls her childhood growing up in the wilds of Alaska) Leigh read a section from the first half of her book and answered question after question from the packed audience.

Leigh Newman book launch

In both her writing and her speech, Leigh has a warmth, a playfulness and a self-deprecation that makes her impossible to dislike. With captivating ease she told stories that made the room belly-laugh and lean towards her before they furiously typed on their smartphones and tweeted her glorious quotes (everything from her encouragement of radical change to her description of memoir writing as ‘soul-slapping’).

Both writers are brilliant on the page and in person, I can’t rate them highly enough.

While I’m on my literary excursions – which writers do you love to hear speak?

Memoir: Under Attack

memoir writing: we all have a story to tellOn New Year’s Eve Susan Shapiro, an author and college journalism teacher, wrote a piece for the New York Times’ Opinionator explaining that, over 20 years of teaching, her signature assignment has become the humiliation essay. It is her way of giving her students what they want, setting them on the path to publish essays and sell memoirs.

The piece sparked a host of debate, reigniting the well-worn argument that the personal essay is killing journalism. Punches were thrown across the web, insults typed and sides taken.

As someone who has a memoir coming out in 4 months, I read Hamilton Nolan’s Gawker response to Shapiro’s piece in a state of near numbness. My eyes stuck on the line that most people’s lives are not interesting enough for a memoir or personal essay and I gulped down his assertion that those writers who start by writing about themselves “end up like bands that used their entire lifetime’s worth of good material in their first album, and then sputtered uselessly when it came time for the follow-up.”

Used-up, finished, uninteresting – hardly a hopeful start to a writing career that has yet to hit the shelves.

And yet, it’s noise I’ve already heard, lines that have already played on repeat in my own head for years. Self-doubt is nothing new. I was never trained as a writer, barely trained as a journalist, and I never set out to write a memoir. I set out to listen to hundreds of stutterers and researchers and write something worthwhile. These people had stories, fascinating lives that made me sit forward in my seat and stay up all night transcribing their words. As I wrote their words down on paper I barely wove myself between the lines. But, in the end, I felt like I was hiding. I felt like I was asking everyone else to bare their souls while I sat safely nodding on the other side of the tape recorder.

So I kept their voices in the book but made my life the structure, made my life the line that all our stories hung from. But I was never aiming to humiliate myself, I wasn’t trying to make anyone feel sorry for me, for any of us. Rather, I was trying to unearth something that had remained taboo for far too long.

I was attempting to write in the memoir tradition of the writer’s I adored. Writers like Strayed, Karr, Walls and Flynn. Far from the inward-looking narcissists that Nolan dismisses so eagerly, these are people who write about themselves with humanity and who look outward to encompass the world we all live in. As Stephen Elliot puts it, they are the type of writers who “inhale their surroundings.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be shaming those people who write about themselves but rather all of us should hold ourselves to the highest standards in both our writing and our lives. If we can be thoughtful in all of that then, perhaps, we can rise to meet our collective potential.

The agony and the ecstasy of choosing a book title

I think I may have sprouted a few grey hairs.

My editor had to hand in my final book title today. Our past two working titles had been thrown out, and a sudden deadline gave us only three days to come up with a great title.

You would think that it would be fun coming up with a book title. Or maybe you have more sense than me, and realize that distilling a book’s essence into a few carefully chosen words is not exactly a walk in the park.

I pictured myself being struck by inspiration whilst relaxing over a picnic in Prospect Park. Instead, my brain melted in New York’s tropical heat-wave and I drove myself slightly insane trying to dredge up an idea.

On Friday I made lists of titles as the AC buzzed next to my ear. Too vague, too passive, too literal. I threw them in the bin and started again.

I formed towers of non-fiction books around my desk for inspiration. Look Me in the Eye, The Glass Castle, How To Be A Woman, Me Talk Pretty One Day…

book titlesI liked strange titles, titles that surprised me in some way, titles that made me laugh. I left the house, attempted to go for a swim (every pool in Brooklyn required a 3 block sweaty wait and the promise of Lycra-clad hoards) and came home hotter and more disgruntled.

I looked at my tower of books again.

One word titles started to stand out. Some of them were too vague or too grand. But others were bold and memorable and perfectly concise.

LIT, MIDDLESEX, WILD, QUIET…

They stuck in my mind and followed me around all weekend. I thought about them as I danced to a funk concert, as I drove north of the city and as I watched Jeremy coaching little league.

My editor and I exchanged title ideas whenever we thought of something that we didn’t hate. Emails were shot back and forth and, finally, this morning, hours before the deadline, we decided on a title. At least, we think we did. It still needs to go through the hurdle of our publisher’s approval.

While I wait, I’m keen to hear what you think….

What makes a great book title? Do you love or hate one-word titles?

How do you get a book published?

There is no easy process from start to finish. Learning how to write well, practicing every day and then coming up with a great story is an amazing start but the rest of the journey gets a bit more murky and uncertain from there. The statistics aren’t cheery. Approximately 2% of books that are written every year get commercially published. The true figure may be even lower. Self-publishing is now a much more viable alternative but many people still want to go down the traditional path. And the traditional path generally means a shocking amount of rejection and false starts.

book writing

Have I scared you off? Hopefully not. 2% of people are published and there are definitely ways to make sure that you have the best chance possible. For the purposes of this piece I’m going to be speaking about non-fiction (from what I have heard about fiction it involves writing a brilliant novel and then going out and convincing an agent and editor that it would be worth their while to publish it).

Non-fiction requires more planning and strategy up front. It requires you to think like a marketer, to try and answer all the questions that some future editor might ask.

Sound like fun? Perhaps not, but writing is a job, and, just like anything else, there will always be parts that aren’t as wonderful as others. You need to create a professional looking proposal that tells agents and editors that you are serious, that you will help them to sell your book, that you are not sitting around waiting for them to do all the hard work. There are lots of things you should do and no ‘right’ way or going about this but your proposal should probably include:

  1. Cover Page
  2. Table of contents
  3. About the book (1 page summary)
  4. About the author
  5. About the market
  6. About the competition
  7. Production details
  8. About promotion
  9. Table of contents (title for each chapter of your book)
  10. Short summaries for each chapter
  11. 2 or 3 sample chapters

Your finished book may end up nothing like your proposal but it is a good start, a good path to start going down. Once you have a proposal you can create a succinct, polished query letter to send out to agents. Take your time over this – in many ways the query letter is the most important few paragraphs you have written so far. It has to grab their attention and get them hooked enough to ask for your entire proposal.

Give yourself an outrageous goal. For instance, I told myself that I wouldn’t stop sending my query out until 100 agents said no to me. Hopefully you won’t get anywhere close to that number but it is good to prepare yourself, to grow a carapace of sorts. Lots of agents will not be interested. Don’t let that stop you. Keep sending out your query letter, keep networking, keep telling everyone about your book. Be shameless at trying to get an agent because, as difficult as it is to land an agent, your chances are far better than going directly to the editor and having your work end up on the dreaded slush pile….the graveyard of unsolicited manuscripts.

Once you have a good agent you have someone who can take your manuscript to the ‘right’ publishing house and steer you through the pitfalls of the whole process. At the end of it all, once you have signed a contract with your agent and a publishing house, you can breath easy for a few hours. But only a few hours, because now you have to write the book that you sold to them so well. The fun is just beginning…

Everyone has a Story: What’s the best storytelling technique?

I went to a class last night at General Assembly called ‘How to tell your startup story’. I was interested for our company ExchangeMyPhone but also as a memoirist. What is the perfect storytelling technique? Does that even exist?

storytelling here

Photo courtesy of Mike Grenville

Obviously we all have the story of our lives. We have all lived a certain number of years, we have a journey to tell people about.

The tricky part is figuring out which story, of the many stories we have, is worth telling. Specifically which parts are interesting?

According to Jerome from Narativ, the answer to which story is pretty simple. You have to find out which ones are relevant to your end goal and to your audience. And the only way to find that out is by testing them out and practicing over and over again. You have to see what different stories work well with different listeners. Some of your stories may bore people to tears, others may sit them on the edge of their seat desperate to hear what you will say next.

At the crux of the class was the idea that there is no one perfect story, that our stories should change depending on who we are telling them to. We should essentially hang our stories from our figurative belt and draw upon them as needed.

However, although we may have an arsenal of stories at our disposal, the format should remain the same for each one. Each piece should have a beginning, a turning point and an end.

Was storytelling really that simple? It had to be more complicated than that. Surely.

And it was. We got into body language and dialogue and details and relevance. But it all came back to the methodology. What happened? What was the obstacle? How did you find a solution?

It is a handy tool for anyone who has ever experienced writer’s block. Work out where you are heading, why you are telling the story and what your goal is. Then take away all the opinions and conjecture and just tell us what happened. If it is your story, no-one can argue with it. Once you have told us what happened, raise the stakes. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the tension, and the more of our attention you have. Set up key moments in the story when things shift and move us towards the ending.

With that, I’m back to writing for the afternoon but I’d love to hear your stories.

If you had to write three sentences (a beginning, a turning point and an ending) what would your story look like?

Out With It: My chameleon book

Out With It started off as a dream, a vague idea of finding myself in the voices of others. To face myself, to spend a year immersed in the subject I had spent a lifetime running away from.

As I started researching I got drawn into 100 lives across America. I spent a year as ‘the interviewer’. I listened to people’s lives, sat in their living rooms, drank their coffee and met their families. I became enchanted by each of them. What made them tick, where did they take their strength from, what worked for them, how did the rest of the world react to them?

I replayed their voices back as I transcribed their words, listened for the intonation in their voices. With my headphones on, blocking out the rest of the world, I was captivated by the variety of their stutterers, the specific cadence of each voice, their unique rhythm.

When I started writing Out With It I wanted to include all of the people I had met. Painfully I narrowed them down to a handful. My picks were neither the best nor the worst. They were just the ones I chose. The book that I wrote was a dedication to all 100 of them.

But it didn’t quite work. The characters didn’t stand out enough. The format of walking into someone’s home, or meeting in a coffee shop or even meeting on the street, started to sound repetitive. I was still hiding behind the stance of ‘the reporter’.

I had spent a year finding out about all these individuals. But, as different as we were, meeting each of them was like looking in a antique mirror. There were pieces where the reflection was dulled, where we didn’t reflect each other so clearly. But we had all worn the same shoes and any differences broadened my understanding, opening my eyes to pieces I hadn’t seen or known before.

What began as a book of oral histories morphed into a memoir. The writing was much more riddled with self-doubt and yet it was honest and vulnerable and I hopefed it would be compelling.

If I’m honest, I probably came to America searching for a cure. Not surprisingly that didn’t go so well but the book is about finding so much more than that. It is about the struggle we all make to accept ourselves as perfectly imperfect.

Struggle to write Out With It

Image courtesy of Don Moyer