To Find Your Story, Try Starting From The End

Age 16, training to be an actress at the Carnegie Mellon Pre-College Summer Conservatory of Drama

We’ve all got things we’ve learned along the way, and when we’re in the public eye, people expect us to deliver our nuggets of wisdom in ways that are entertaining and engaging. But they don’t want a dry lecture, they want to hear our story.

When you’re wondering what stories you have to tell, try starting from the end. Think about something you’ve learned along the way and remember back to how you learned it. What was happening in your life? What was important to you at the time? And did you learn from success or failure? You may surprise yourself with what you discover.

For instance, as an editor and a teacher, I often tell writers and students: Nothing is ever wasted. No experience, however painful or discouraging, is ever a complete loss. But if that’s all I say, they (especially the teenagers) are likely to think something like “Yeah, yeah, yeah, next!” So instead of just boring them with how smart I am, I can share when and how I learned that nothing is ever wasted and go back to an experience that was, in fact, painful and discouraging.

I’ve got to tell what happened because, as much as any credential or title, my story is the thing proves I know what I’m talking about. So here it goes, here’s my story…

When I was little, like so many kids, I loved playing pretend. So, when I was 11, and some neighbors founded a community theater company, my friends and I auditioned because it seemed like a fun thing to do. Even though I wasn’t cast right away, and was pretty shy at first, over the next few years I became an active member of the company and an experienced performer.

I loved acting. Not only was the stage a place where I could play pretend and be rewarded for it, but it was also a place where I was accepted for being sensitive and vulnerable; something that didn’t happen in regular life. Even more than applause, I also loved the camaraderie with the company members, and how inspired we felt when we were putting on a show, taking risks, and putting ourselves out there. After a few years, acting felt like something I was meant to do, and became the closest thing I had to a spiritual life. When I was onstage, I could forget who I was and connect to something greater than myself. It was bliss.

So at 16, I attended a summer training conservatory and, then, having decided I wanted to be a professional actress, enrolled in a college with a respected theater department.

But college wasn’t like community theater and, instead of belonging, I felt like an outsider. I wasn’t as confident and outgoing as the other students, and I rarely knew the words to the musical numbers they spontaneously sang. And though I was cast in a featured role during my first semester, my confidence started to slip, at first in little ways and then in one fell swoop.

I was auditioning for a play. The director and her friends were super talented, and I wanted them to like me. But I was so nervous and so concerned with seeming cool that, when I stepped in front of them to read, I lost control. My hands shook so violently that the pages of my script fluttered loudly and, with all that movement, I couldn’t even see my lines, let alone speak them. The director tried to calm me down, but it was no use. I didn’t finish the audition and left the room, humiliated. I decided, right then, that I was never going to audition again. And I quit acting…

I could end the narrative right here, and let you give this story your own meaning. But since I’m here to impart wisdom, I can’t just share an anecdote about a time I screwed up; I’ve got to close with the message I want to convey. I’ve got to close with the wisdom of the story.

For years, I was ashamed that I’d given up on something that meant so much to me, and ashamed that I hadn’t reached out for support when the going got tough. But over time, I realized that quitting acting wasn’t the end of my my life as an artist. Instead, I realized that my experiences as an actor were foundational to the person I became, and gave me skills I use to this day. For instance, acting taught me how important it is to take creative risks: not only on behalf of an audience, but on behalf of my fellow artists. And, because of acting, I know how scary it is to reveal yourself publicly or try something new, and I know how devastating it is to feel unfairly judged. Last but not least, acting taught me about narrative and what works in a story and what doesn’t. I might have learned those things anyway, but I did learn them through acting, and for that I’m deeply grateful*.

The moments that make up our best stories don’t always immediately spring to mind. Contrary to what people think, they often aren’t the biggest or most momentous events; instead they’re fairly normal things that occurred on a Tuesday night in April, when we were nineteen. And even though it might not have seemed like it at the time, these are the moments that changed our lives and made us who we are. It can just take a little time to remember them.

This summer, I’ll be leading a small group of entrepreneurs through the process of finding their own stories. The workshop is called Origin Stories: Not Just For Superheroes, and you can find out more about it here.

*Full disclosure: I’ve never actually shared that story with my students, though I have encouraged them to believe that no effort is ever wasted. And, in fact, I didn’t know how I knew that, until I sat down to write the story

Sitting Down To Write

The first step towards writing anything is deceptively simple. It’s sitting.

But it’s not just any sitting. It’s sitting in front of a blank page or screen — the prospect of which can be intimidating. While there are people who can sit down and get right to business, for others it can take time.  

If you are one of these people, do not fret if you find yourself:

  • Straightening out your desk, living room or kitchen
  • Watching Netflix
  • Making a cup of tea
  • Lighting a candle
  • Throwing out the garbage

Even experienced writers can dismiss such puttering as mere procrastination, but I prefer to think of it as a kind of nesting. It is simply what’s necessary to welcome your imagination into the room.

After all, the mindset with which we address daily life is different from the one required for creative labor, and it’s not always easy to switch gears. And while, of course, there will be times when inspiration hits you while you’re doing something else, devotion to a project demands that you be able to write on command.

Creating the proper setting for your imagination is an act of self-care that requires practice and patience.  So give yourself some grace and explore what you need to settle into a writing session: Do you prefer quiet or noise? A messy space or a tidy one? Morning or evening? Just as every writer develops a “voice” through choice of words and story, every writer also develops preferences for diving into the creative process.

Especially in the beginning, it can take time for your mind to turn away from the mundane details of daily life and towards creation. So don’t be ashamed if, as one highly accomplished artist once told me, it takes three times as long to prepare as it does to actually create. 

Your story is waiting to be told, and I encourage you to do whatever it takes to sit down and begin telling it.

Facing The Monster

Writers, Editors, Collaboration
A Good Editor is A Writer’s Best Ally

If you are not discouraged about your writing on a regular basis, you may not be trying hard enough. Any challenging pursuit will encounter frequent patches of frustration. Writing is nothing if not challenging. – Maxwell Perkins

Whether we’re seasoned writers or inexperienced newbies, there’s no question that facing the blank page, or even a page we’ve already written, can feel like facing down a monster.

Creativity is a major area of stress for most, if not all, human beings and few things are as sensitive as offering up our creative babies for feedback. At times, it may feel like our very existence is being judged and measured for worthiness, and when a project is particularly close to our hearts, even the smallest critique can sting.

People write because they have something inside which they feel compelled to get out. It can be an experience, an observation, an idea, or a dream, but, whatever it is, it can feel like so much is at stake when we offer it to another set of eyes.

Is it good? Does it make sense? Have I revealed too much? Should I give up?

Questions like these flood every writer’s mind once they’ve handed off their pages, and that’s why a good editor must be as gifted with psychology as she is with words. While I’m here to assure that your work makes sense, flows cleanly, and communicates a powerful message, I’m also here to hold your hand as you face the monsters at every stage of your project. I’m your collaborator, your coach and your ally.