- I grew up with a professional storyteller for a father. At a young age, was lucky to have absorbed a lot of great storytelling by getting drug to the festivals where he performed.
- In college, I took some creative writing courses. I wasn't very good at it, but some seeds were planted by talented folks like Stephen Burt and Alex Lemon.
- After college, I worked at a newspaper, and among other things, covered slam poetry and storytelling. I got to watch a lot of spoken word, and I’m grateful for that opportunity.
- After I quit the paper, I didn't have conflict of interest preventing me from performing anymore, so I tried doing this shit myself and got hooked.
But I've been telling stories on stage for four years now. Why I got started is boring history.
The more interesting question is, “Why do I keep doing this shit?”
The things I wrote in those fifteen years - in my creative writing classes and on my own - were mostly crap. I was writing what I thought other people wanted to hear. I wanted to be a writer. Coffee, cigarettes, angst, all that stupid shit.
In order to get and stay healthy, I had to learn how to let my walls down. The people and literature of recovery taught me how to be brave in sharing my story. I told secrets to strangers in meetings that I’d never told to another soul.
Put another way, early recovery was a crash course in being vulnerable. The feedback I got came in the form of nods, knowing chuckles, and tears of empathy. Nobody yelled at me. Nobody told me to get the fuck out. Lots of people said, “Me too.”
After a while, I started to think maybe I could make parts of those stories work for people outside of meetings. I wanted to see if I could be vulnerable to a normal audience - could share the difficult parts of myself in a way such that, even if their experiences might vary from mine in the particulars, my audience members would come away with something to carry with them.
I sat down and tried to figure out how to do that. For the first time, I wasn't thinking about what other people wanted to hear. I was thinking about what stories I wanted to tell. For the most part, those stories didn't involve a lot of cigarettes, coffee, or angst.
In a world where headlines and televisions scream “monster” and “pervert”, I felt vulnerable about seeing my friend as a person instead of an abomination. I also felt absolutely convinced that I couldn't feel otherwise about him.
So I crafted a composite character to protect my friend’s identity and wrote Avery, my first slam story.
Interjection: big ups to Cole Sarar for coaching me away from some significant noob mistakes in crafting Avery.
The question I asked my audience wasn't just, “Do you see this man as a human being, or as a monster?” It was, “This man is my friend. Will you accept or reject me for that?”
When I finished the story that night, I could see by the faces of the audience that they had heard the questions implicit in the story and were working to find their own answers. I didn't need to hear all those answers directly - it was enough that people thought the questions were worth considering.
One man came up to me after that slam, shook my hand, and said, “That was an important story. I’m glad you told it.” He had tears in his eyes when he said it.
It was what happened that night - and what continues to happen when I get on stage - that keeps me here. It’s the particular form of intimacy that I've only ever found as a solo performer on stage with an audience full of strangers.
In order to get to that intimacy, I've got to look at the shit I want to throw down a deep, dark hole and never show to the world, and then take all that shit and put it in front of a microphone with a bright light shining right in its eyes. Doing that work keeps me from building my walls back up. It keeps me healthy.
Someday, maybe I’ll get yelled at, and maybe I’ll get told to get the fuck out. Being vulnerable is about taking that risk, and accepting that outcome when it happens.
But If I've done the work right, most nights I just get nods, knowing chuckles, and tears of empathy. And sometimes, “Me too.”
That’s why I keep doing this shit.