Presented to the Idaho Speech Arts Teachers Association in 2019.
Launch: THIS IS NOT AT ALL INTIMIDATING (sarcasm)
Nothing is quite as intimidating as giving a speech to a bunch of speech teachers. Or presenting a well-reasoned thesis to debate teachers. Luckily, my forte is drama, drama, drama. So…this is still in my wheelhouse.
It’s ironic that I’m giving this speech at all, given that, for decades, I was the girl who never talked. I was like an adolescent mime. [*in a box gesture*]
As a young child, my elderly neighbor taught me a non-speaking technique I still use to this day. I’d go to her house and she’d say, “Make your eyes big.” [*mime eye thang*] She’d give me a commemorative spoon from Nebraska. It was the most positive reinforcement I’ve ever received in my life. It’s also an excellent way to hit on people. [*eye mime thing then sarcastically shakes head*]
So that’s the beginning. Somehow, I end up here. The founder of a live storytelling program. The winner of the inaugural Boise’s Funniest Person stand-up competition. A veritable stage presence. Who is, like, actually speaking. Out loud.
In between, is the story. And the story is one of surprising change and revelation, as all great stories are.
ROCKS & ISLANDS
I know I’m not the only teenager to mournfully sing the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel (*coughs* insert more contemporary reference here) while lying on her bed staring at the ceiling.
“I am a rock. I am an issssland. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.”
I know I’m not the only one because, according to recent scientific studies, loneliness is an epidemic.
Even (and especially) in the age of social media and instant messaging and 24-hour news cycles, loneliness is on the rise. Over the last 50 years, loneliness rates have doubled in the United States. Over half of surveyed American adults reported feeling alone, left out, isolated. One in four Americans shared they rarely feel understood. And one in five people believe they rarely or never feel close to people.
This breaks my heart.
And its breaking their hearts. Studies have shown that poor social relationships were associated with a 29 percent increase in risk of coronary heart disease and a 32 percent rise in the risk of stroke. Loneliness can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This is a dire public health threat. Loneliness is literally killing us. Both as individuals and as a society.
I understand the impacts firsthand. Growing up incredibly isolated pushed me into a state of pervasive, persistent depression. And to drug use and addiction to numb the pain.
So even as I recited Simon and Garfunkel lyrics to will my gooey, despair-stricken heart into a hard-pressed inanimate object with no real need for human connection—deep down, I must have known the song was a lie. Because like a totally normal teenager, I also walked around my bedroom memorizing John Donne.
“No man is an island. Entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent. A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manner of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
Also a great thing to say to students still in the hallway when the bell rings. “It tolls for thee! Slackers!”
THE ESSAY CLUB
In every great story, there is a turning point. One that might seem mundane at first. But that takes you off the track you’ve been routinely following, and shifts your perspective entirely.
My initial turning point came my senior year in high school, in the form of a big-hearted, big-brained, deep-voiced librarian. He’s the kind of guy who just spouts off literary quotes in everyday conversation that forever get turned around and around in your brain like a Rubik’s cube.
For example, he would throw out: “In the words of Nietzsche, ‘When you look into the abyss, you become the abyss’.” *mind blown gesture*
He invited me to be part of “The Essay Club.” Based on recommendations from other teachers, he hand-picked five kids to read essays on a theme, and then discuss them over tea on any given Sunday in a room above the library. As subsequent boyfriends have pointed out, it’s probably the dorkiest high school club on earth, but for me, it was the first time I felt really listened to. Like my ideas mattered. Like my intellect meant something. Even being picked for this group meant that someone SAW me. Truly saw something special in me, silent and scribbling in the back of the class. And that alone meant the world to me.
Together, we talked about everything from food to abortion to George Orwell. In the process, we expanded our points of view. We really connected. We slowly healed ourselves.
To this day, the essay club members are my best friends. And the librarian is the most important lifelong mentor I’ll ever know.
After that, I forced myself to speak to people. Literally forced myself through waves of terror and uncertainty and self-doubt. And after years of imagining what people were saying without actually participating, I guess I had turned everyone into characters from the Jane Austen or Dostoevsky books I devoured. Because while I thought people must be discussing deep philosophical and societal matters in complex and beautiful language, they were actually just spouting off some random bullsheep. Honestly, I was quite disappointed. I. Could. Not. “Do.” Small talk.
So instead I asked questions. Trying to get to the heart of the matter, and in a deft shy girl move, also focusing the spotlight back on the person I was talking to. *taps head* Clever. I’d ask: “What are you passionate about?” “What’s a turning point in your life?” Or simply, “What happened?” the greatest story-sparking question ever devised.
I did not discriminate who I talked to. Young. Old. Whoever happened to be there at the coffee shop when I willed myself to open my mouth. And I learned that everyone has a story that means something.
Your weirdo quirks sometimes become your biggest strengths. It’s not just a “The More You Know” afterschool special sort of pablum to make weirdo teenagers feel better. It’s true.
My conversations often ended with people telling me, somewhat in surprise of themselves, “Wow, I’ve never told that to anyone.”
And that became my secret superpower. Extracting stories from the core of someone’s heart. Like some oil baron of the soul.
STORY STORY NIGHT
Ten years later, I started Story Story Night. Inspired by The Essay Club, my odd collection of strangers’ stories, and a liberal dash of This American Life, The Moth, and David Sedaris, this monthly show explores true stories on a theme. Told live on stage and without notes. With featured storytellers intermixed with an open story slam.
The first show we had is forever seared into my brain, and every show is seared into my heart.
We had set out about 50 chairs. High expectations for an arts event in Boise at the time (before all the Californians came and started like *indignant* attending things). But right before doors opened, I looked out the window, and the line snaked down the stairs and down the street. We set out all the 125 chairs the venue had, and still had standing room only.
And the stories were electric. Especially the most vulnerable ones. The theme was BUSTED, and one storyteller told an in turns hilarious and harrowing story about him as an adolescent boy who got caught peeping on his teenage girl neighbors. There was something about the still palpable embarrassment and stripped honesty (pun intended) he conveyed that had this amazing effect throughout the entire room.
The only time I’ve felt something similar to this was when I climbed the highest peak in the Sawtooths. As we were nearing the summit, storm clouds crept in, and our hair started to stand on end. Obviously, I should’ve booked it downhill screaming that I don’t want to be a lightning bolt statistic, but instead, I ran my hands through the air, because it felt so heavy and weighted. Palpable. And as I did, sparks went off in between each finger. Pew, pew, pew. I felt like a god.
And that’s how it felt to me in the room that night. Like the air was weighted, thick and alive with electricity. It’s magic. Magic made of empathy and vulnerability and stories.
STORIES IN THE BRAIN
In the brain, storytelling is rather electric. Storytelling is hardwired in us. It’s as natural as breathing. It’s how we process our experiences and lives and world.
In the brain, stories light the whole thing up. It’s like a disco party up there. When hearing plain facts and data on a boring PowerPoint, we only use the language processing parts in our brain. When listening to a story, the language processing part is lit up but so are other areas that spark off when actually experiencing the events of the story. Like, “her fur was so soft” would engage our sensory cortex. Or “I ran like hell” would engage our motor cortex.
Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson says that a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.
He’s demonstrated that by telling stories to each other, our brainwaves actually sync up. This sounds like I’m quoting from AmazingTheoriesofTheUniverse.com but he’s like, a Princeton neuroscientist. With a famous TED talk. This phenomenon is called neural entrainment. Look it up. It’s fascinating.
Scientists are also discovering that chemicals like cortisol, dopamine, and oxytocin are released in the brain when we’re told a story. Cortisol, a multi-functional hormone that works to protect our health and overall well-being, helps make a point stick. Dopamine, regulating our emotional responses, keeps us engaged. And oxytocin is associated with empathy, and a crucial element in building, deepening, and maintaining good relationships.
Stories are the ultimate high, man.
Because even more than a designer drug, people crave connection. They long for empathy. They need stories. It’s built into our DNA. It’s in our very nature.
THE POWER OF EMPATHY
The Dali Lama says, “Empathy is the most precious human quality.” And you have to agree with everything the Dali Lama says or you’re a terrible person. So…*looking at you gesture*
The reigning queen of empathy and vulnerability is Brene Browne. She says that “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”
She often quotes Teresa Wiseman, who pinpointed four qualities of empathy: [*counts with fingers*] The ability to take the perspective of another person. Staying out of judgement. Recognizing emotion in other people. Then communicating that.
Brene says, “Empathy is a choice. A vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”
I think that empathy is also a muscle. We build it with weighted thoughts and memories and shared storytelling.
I think the idea of a story with weight is an important concept to note, too. The thing about stories is, you can’t just put one in your google cal for 3 pm next Tuesday. “Experience Great Story.” Check. Stories happen to us, rather than us intending for them to happen. Our best stories are usually moments of surprise and vulnerability. From, I had my fly down in front of my gradeschool crush, to the doctor diagnosed me with chapstick addiction. That’s an actual Story Story story. (She ended up having to go cold turkey.) Our most life-defining stories are when surprise and vulnerability combine in the extreme.
THE STORY WAVE
I compare it to a wave. You launch off. You think everything’s heading steadily up in this one direction, and suddenly [glug, blurb, water in face noises]. The action turns. And it takes you by surprise. Sometimes knocks you down. Shoves you underwater.
But note that a wave, after that awe-inspiring dramatic moment, finds peace again. Once transformed it turns back to where it came from, folds in, reaches calm. Lands softly on the sand. Ploosh.
And that’s a story. A really good story. Because it builds in tension. You don’t really know where it’s headed until suddenly—a super powerful turn of events happens. It’s sometimes jaw dropping to see it unfold. And then it loops back and finds resolution. The power and meaning of it washes over you. Whoosh.
And there you are, in the end, on the beach sipping a mojito, just watching the waves, man, and soaking up the true nature of perspective—and like, the universe and stuff.
At Story Story, we help people find this clear shape of their stories in the sea of their existence. And by shaping our stories, and recognizing them for what they are now, and what they’ve meant to the course of our life, we take sometimes embarrassing, weird, shameful, painful experiences and turn them into our superpower. At last, in our minds and in our hearts, we are not the villain, but the hero of our own story. It’s how we make sense of our lives.
MAKING IT UNIVERSAL
What I love about Story Story Night is that we give people the chance to shape their story in a way that’s universal. It’s not a story being told to your old friend Dan, it’s being told to 500 strangers. No sweat.
And it’s delivered in a way that’s naked, in a truly vulnerable sense. No notes. No props. No lightshows. Just you, a mic, the crowd. And the electric power of empathy.
Story Story Night offers themes as a story hook. I always tried to pick themes that merged surprise and vulnerability. Like HAUNTED: Stories of Ghosts from Your Closet, or HOOKED: Stories of Cravings and Compulsions.
Themes help give people an easy way to think about and shape their stories. Most of our best stories will fit under any number of themes. And any given theme you choose will subtly shift the details you decide to include in your story, and even the overall point that comes across in the end.
Even to this day, I pick a theme before a creative project to help guide my material. When I did Boise’s Funniest Person, my theme was AWKWARD. Nailed it. The theme for this speech is STRONGER TOGETHER. Obvi.
MAKING IT PERSONAL
I’ll finish with a story. One that demonstrates all of my aforementioned globemaking brilliant points in a vulnerable, heartfelt way that will make you empathize and remember. See? *taps head* Clever.
In the first year of Story Story Night, I asked my mom to tell her story for STAR-CROSSED LOVE: Stories of Fated Attraction. We worked together for four hours, sifting through moments and details of her life. Deciding how to sum up a decade in a sentence. And how to draw out the scenes that truly counted in this telling.
My parents were an odd couple. They met at a hippie revivalist Christian church. But she was still more Catholic schoolgirl than rebel and he was more stoner than prayer. Love is funny like that. How it doesn’t quite make rational sense. But inexorably, drugs took over my dad’s life. He became addicted to meth. And as he fell apart, their marriage did too. They were divorced for 10 years. In the meantime, my dad got clean. And one unpredictable, forced family togetherness Christmas, they fell hopelessly in love again. And got married 3 years later. And it’s redemption and magic and all that jazz.
I know firsthand the healing power that had for my mom. Standing in front of a room of people, as the truest of her true self, revealing her painful, embarrassing, yet humorous and powerful truth. Having a room full of people ride the wave with her. Then clap uproariously. It’s a moment of pride and self-worth. It’s a defining memory in her life. It utterly transformed this incredibly painful epoch. This great tragedy turned into a great triumph.
THE RIPPLE EFFECT
And the impact just ripples out from there. It helped heal some old wounds in her marriage. And it empowers my sisters and me to this day. We listen to it sometimes when just hanging out together, talking about our past. Her story is a cherished family memento.
And that’s what I love about Story Story Night the most. It makes me so insanely happy, to know that each story told impacts hundreds and hundreds of people. In large and small ways. The storyteller especially.
It makes me so insanely happy that I helped forge something that is forging our community, one story and one show at a time, now 10 years in. And it’s forging a community that’s deeply rooted in real connection, vulnerability, empathy, and understanding. In the face of all that, loneliness, it just poofs. Disappears into thin air. Because that’s all it’s made of.
At our last birthday for the program, a long-time audience member from our early days told me he doesn’t think he would be here today if it wasn’t for Story Story Night. I couldn’t even say anything back. Tears just streamed down my face.
The less you talk about something the more power you give it. What we really need is three healing, magic words: “I hear you.”
I’ll end with a Rubik’s cube quote like my deep-voice librarian mentor. Cheryl Strayed, in her advice column Dear Sugar, once wrote: “Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding.”
So basically, we’re all reverse origami. And I imagine, that, when the page is flat, then you can read your full story. The weird, beautiful, awkward and amazing story of your life. And hopefully, you’ll have the chance to tell that story to other people—even as it’s gradually unfolding. And really hear their stories, too.
It was a joy and a privilege to share the same brainwaves with you today. Thank you.