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

Rewriting Your Own Story is Sometimes the Most Important Revision of All

For writers who come from marginalized backgrounds, this is particularly important. As they say, “representation matters.”

This girl thought she’d made all the mistakes, until she realized she’d gained all the wisdom. Or some of it.

Whether I’m editing, teaching, or public speaking, I’m not only committed to educating writers about how to write and publish better books, I’m also committed to being their champion and a constant reminder that they’re worthy of writing, and rewriting, their stories… especially the ones they tell about themselves.

For writers who come from marginalized backgrounds, this is particularly important. As they say, “representation matters.” And when we lack heroes who remind us of ourselves — ethnically, racially, socioeconomically or otherwise — it can be that much harder to see ourselves as the heroes of our own journeys, especially when the going gets rough.

Back when I was starting out in the entertainment industry, “The X-Files” posted an opening for a researcher. As a huge fan of the show and a whiz at research, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. I’d already written a sample script in which Agents Mulder and Scully discover Puerto Rican independence activists fighting the Federal government with brujeria, and saw the position as a launching pad for the fantastic writing career I wanted.

Thrilled when I got called for an interview, I drove to the Fox lot with stars in my eyes. Having nearly memorized the show’s credits, I knew that the woman interviewing me had moved up the ranks from Executive Assistant to Vice President, and I looked forward to impressing her with my mad skills and abundance of arcane knowledge. And, to my credit, I did both. But then, as our conversation was wrapping up, she dropped the bomb. They’d already decided to hire from within, and while they had a writer’s assistant position available, she thought I wouldn’t want it because “assistants don’t get the respect that researchers do.”

At the time I didn’t know that, regardless of potential disrespect, working as an assistant was one of the best ways to get started as a TV writer. I also didn’t know that I should have taken anything she offered. But instead of saying “I’ll take it,” I said “No thanks.”

Then I put my script on her desk and walked out: right past Vince Gilligan, the writer of my favorite “X-Files” episodes and future creator of “Breaking Bad.” He must have assumed I was one of the new assistants because, as I strode by, he shot me a disdainful look, dripping with disrespect.

For too long, I told myself this incident proved I was destined to fail. WHO does that? Aren’t ‘successful’ people smarter than that? Wasn’t I supposed to be smarter than that?

As I matured and gained perspective, however, I rewrote this story — from one that confirmed my incompetence and stupidity, to one that celebrates the courage of a geeky Latina girl from the Bronx pursuing her dreams in Hollywood. Rather than a story about shame, it became a story about experience, and a badge of wisdom rather than a disfiguring scar.

When we rewrite the stories from our past, we rewrite out futures. Stories are that powerful. They give us who we are, and not only can they help turn us from victims to heroes with just a few words, they can do that for our readers as well — especially when those readers have been dying for a story with a heroine just like them: one who learns from her mistakes and grows that much stronger for them.

Wanna make a room of white people feel awkward…?

Books by writers of color are more likely to be banned. That’s right. In the above Bitch Media interview with Kristen Pekoll from The Office of Intellectual Freedom with The American Library’s Association, she states that more than three quarters of the books banned by school libraries in 2017 were by, or about, people of color.  “What does it say about our culture that people don’t want these books on the shelf?” she asks.

Even though offended parents, teachers and administrators claim that they object to these books due to religious, political, sexual, or other “controversial,” content,  what they all have in common is that they explicitly and honestly address the experiences of non-white Americans, or protagonists from other cultures.

And that can make a lot of people uncomfortable. As she says “Wanna make a room of white people feel awkward? Talk about race.”  

It’s not only difficult for most white Americans to face up to the racist history of our country, it’s even more difficult for them to understand what racism is, and how it functions on a structural and institutional basis. Unfortunately, however, because 89% of publishing industry professionals are white, the odds are against writers of color getting the attention and support they need to effectively explore the intersections of race, poverty, gender and class in ways that will awaken readers and challenge the status quo. 

Nevertheless, I have hope. And right now that hope lies in my commitment to creating spaces for writers of color to discover and develop stories that not only convey infrequently-heard truths, and possibly inspire a more just and fulfilling world, but where they also never have to hear the question, “Why does everything have to be about race?”

Register for my upcoming Circle for Writers of Color, launching in February 2019, or sign up for a free group coaching session for Writers of Color.

The Self Publishing Revolution…

 

By now, every writer — and probably ever reader — knows that the publishing world has undergone a radical makeover in the last ten years or so. Thanks to Amazon and a variety of self-publishing platforms like Lulu and CreateSpace, writers no longer have to rely on “the big 5” to get their words read.

But there are pluses and minuses to every revolution, and this podcast from The Guardian presents a great overview of all of it — featuring interviews with self-published authors as well as agents, editors and big-time publishers.

If you’re curious about how the landscape has changed, and whether or not self-publishing is right for you (hint, for first-time writers, it probably is) take a listen. It’ll easily be worth your 34 minutes.