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"I am a Midwesterner of German descent. My people do not air their dirty laundry in public. In fact, we've made something of an art out of acting like we don't have dirty laundry and avoiding the public. That's why it's so uncomfortable for me to stand in front of you today and share this very personal story."
That's how my June 22, 2016, TEDx Talk began. At least, that's how I rehearsed it. I'm not sure exactly what I ended up saying, though I'll be able to find out in a few weeks, when the talk goes up on YouTube. Not that I'll watch it.
I'll get to that part.
Most of you know me as a fiction writer. Mostly that's how I know myself. I'm a writing teacher, too, and because of life experiences as well as how I'm wired, I'm also someone who is profoundly uncomfortable with secrets, particularly ones I keep from myself. All those salty bits came together in a stew a year and a half ago when I was talking to my agent about crafting a how-to-write-a-novel book.
"Those are a dime a dozen," she said. "What can you bring to the table that's new?"
My murky stew bubbled, but I wasn't ready to listen. "My how-to would be modern, funny. I'd bring a different voice."
Her silence confirmed my lameness. We ended the phone call. The stew bubbled for weeks. I tried not to give it any attention, but those bits were cooking and swirling and growing hotter, and when it became more uncomfortable to ignore than to listen, I called her back.
"I never tell this story," I told her, "but I wrote my first mystery to recover from my husband's 9/11 suicide. Every book I've written since, every one worth reading, is my own personal shit transformed into fiction. Rewriting my life keeps me sane. It makes good stories." I took a deep breath. "I guess I could write a book showing others how to turn their own facts into fiction."
She didn't hesitate. "Write it."
Pushing against a lifetime of conditioning--don't talk about your shit, don't talk about your shit, don't talk about your shit--I wrote that book, a step-by-step guide to transforming life experiences into a compelling, healing novel. At every turn, I dredged up stories from my own life to demonstrate how to alchemize real shame, fear, and doubt into a novel. I ripped off the bandage of fiction. Writing my truth was profoundly uncomfortable, but at least I wasn't saying that stuff out loud. I could still hide behind paper.
For a while.
The book took me six months to draft and edit. My agent shopped it around. She received the same feedback at every turn: "we love the writing, but what's the writer's platform?" I didn't have one, not at the "automatically sell 50,000 copies" level they were looking for. I only had a good book. Around the same time, I was talking to my friend, the incredible photographer and sociologist Cindy Hager. She mentioned a TED Talk she'd recently watched. We got to brainstorming. Maybe being a TED speaker could be my platform?
"Maybe," Cindy said. "But screw the platform. Your talk can help people. Do it."
I applied to the national TED, the big one, the central organization. I never heard back. I also applied to the Fargo and Minneapolis TEDx events. I didn't hear back. Then I applied to the Rapid City TEDx, using the form they had live on their site for a few short weeks. They accepted me. Not long after, a small press made an offer on my book.
That's when I realized what I'd signed up for. I was going to tell the very personal story of Jay's suicide out loud, in public, in front of cameras, on the exalted TEDx stage. I was going to rip off the paper veil and expose all my fiction for the truth it was. There would be no going back. It would be a life changer, and I liked my life. I began to study TED Talks, I read three books on delivering a TED Talk, I rehearsed multiple times a day including delivering the speech at a writing conferences and to friends, I worked with a coach supplied by TEDx, and I worried. In the same three months, I also got married, sold a house, moved to a new city, bought a house, blended families.
The day before the event, the amazing Rapid City TEDx team organized a VIP dinner for the speakers, donors, and volunteers. There I met Alice Brouhard, a nurse whose story of turning her daughter's traumatic brain injury into a mission to make life management apps accessible to all who need them is going to blow you away when it goes live in a few weeks. I shared huckleberry lemonade with Michael and Nathan, who together started a school for orphans in Kenya that is changing over 400 lives. Over wine, Don Frankenfeld told me he wasn't sure if his wife would make it to his talk the next day because their dog had just died, and wasn't it sadly fitting as his talk was about end of life decisions. Some of the speakers had applied to present, like me. Others had been approached by the organizing committee. All had ideas worth sharing.
I spoke with as many of them as I could, and I felt my heart open, and I worried some more. I worried that my story wasn't good enough, whatever that meant. I worried that I'd blank on stage despite 100s of hours of preparation. Mostly I worried about the mighty, amorphous punishment I would call down for airing my dirty laundry because if my people had never done it surely there was a good reason why.
I went to bed at a reasonable hour that night. Around midnight, I woke up, heart hammering, tears on my cheeks. I realized I hadn't left extra food or water for my cat, hadn't even asked anyone to check in on him, and I'd been on the road for over three days. I'd been so focused on this TEDx Talk that I'd as good as killed him. I stumbled to the hotel bathroom to splash water on my face, mentally running through the list of people I could call at this hour to check on him. I was miserable, panicked. A name popped into my head. I made it all the way to my phone before I remembered I don't have a cat.
Yep. Psychic terror at its finest.
The next morning, all the speakers arrived early. We were all nervous for the same reasons, more or less. We'd agreed to the trifecta of terror: public speaking, sharing personal stories, and the gravitas and expectations of the TED stage. At 9:45, the first three presenters were ushered to the green room. We were jittery, laughing too much, the cursed comforting the doomed. The green room TV showed the the lights dim and the emcee take the stage.
He would be brief, we'd been told. When he was almost done, Katie, the lead organizer, would come get me, the first speaker. I'd stand in the wings. When he introduced me, I'd take the stage. Then I'd tell my story.
Impossibly, my fear escalated. I started doing wall push-ups and breathing exercises--quietly because I was mic'd--when all of a sudden, I entered the next level of fear, one I'd never achieved before. And you know what? It was peaceful. I was in the chute, and the ride was going to take me where it was going to take me.
I stepped on stage, into the spotlight. A huge photo of me lit up the screen. I clicked the remote, and the words "rewrite your life" took over. I told my story. The audience listened to me with their hearts in their eyes, laughing at what I meant to be funny, crying when that wedding photo of Jay and me, taken three weeks before he killed himself, appeared on screen. It was all I could do to keep it together, but mostly I did. I don't think I smiled much. I ended with the words I wanted to end with, words I believe in my deepest parts, the whole reason I'd come to Rapid City:
"My hope for you is that you claim your right not to be defined by what happens to you in this life, but by what you choose to make of it. Thank you."
Polite applause followed. I stepped off stage and into the green room, handing the clicker to the emcee as we passed. The backstage volunteer whispered, "You did it!" before my mic was shut off. Colors seemed brighter, sounds more acute. I had done it. I'd run the marathon, passed the test, climbed the peak. The other speakers gave their talks and hit it out of the park. We had our first break. I felt vulnerable and triumphant as I mingled with the audience. I didn't know how to act. People seemed to give me wide berth. Kindly, but still.
Then a woman approached me, her eyes a little shattered. I recognized the expression. You can see it in this photo of me talking about the aftermath of Jay's death. "My son committed suicide when he was 15," she said. "I've tried writing about it ever since, but I always stop. Your talk has inspired me to try again."
Life became so crystalline in that moment. I could see and feel my place in the web running from this woman who is also a life coach to the day's organizers to Cindy who encouraged me to apply to the people who held me up after Jay's suicide to Jay himself to our son to Christine who drove out to South Dakota with me so I'd have a friend near to my new husband, Tony, who is always quietly supporting me. It was a gorgeous sticky map of our duty to one another, all of it delicately linked by unbreakable gossamer threads. The moment was transcendent.
That's why I won't watch my TEDx Talk when it enters cyber space in early August. It would be surreal to see myself up on that stage, but more urgently, I don't want to self-criticize my delivery, my clothes, my hair, my words. Turns out that's never what it's about. I want to hang on to that single moment when I was connected to the real stuff.
A special thanks to the Rapid City TEDx organizers who made the day possible.
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