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

REPRESENTATION: In Education, in the World and on the Page

When, as People of Color, we change ourselves to accommodate an inherently racist status quo, we lose the best of what we have to offer our families, our communities and our ancestors.

Inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I recently got me some hoops.

At a recent Town Hall meeting, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke of her dad’s education at Brooklyn Tech, a selective NYC public high school that made a different kind of life possible for him – and I related. As a teenager, I traveled 90 minutes each way to attend Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan because I, too, wanted a different kind of life. But attending this “elite” school (and the “elite” schools that followed) came at a cost.

In high school, I was the only Latina I knew. Because I didn’t fit the stereotype of a Puerto Rican girl from The Bronx, I made the decision that not only did I not count as a “real” Latina, but that I should also avoid anything that could make people think I was one. Hoop earrings were, therefore, out of the question, as was gold bamboo jewelry, nameplate necklaces and tight, sexy outfits. I also did everything I could to erase any signs of a Bronx accent, including speech classes at 16 to cultivate a generic Mid-Atlantic cadence.

I did, however, always wear bright red lipstick and nail polish — because it looked so damn good. Then one day, a friend asked “Why do you do that? It makes you look like a Puerto Rican girl.” In a rare moment of pride, I responded, “Because I am a Puerto Rican girl.” But my pride didn’t go much further than that.

From personal experience, I know that the lack of black/brown representation in NYC’s selective high schools (as well as in highly selective colleges and universities) is an injustice not only to deserving kids who don’t get in, but also to ones that do. Just this week, out of a total of 897 kids, Stuyvesant admitted only seven black students to its class of 2023. For all the opportunity Stuyvesant offers those kids, how can it possibly compensate for the culture shock they’re about to experience?

When, as People of Color, we change ourselves to accommodate an inherently racist status quo, we lose the best of what we have to offer our families, our communities and our ancestors. And because true power and fulfillment come from owning who we really are, an educational system in which extraordinary kids from disadvantaged communities are pressured to dis-identify with their authentic selves cannot be considered “just” or even successful.

The same goes for publishing and media. Human beings cannot become what we do not see; this is not mere philosophy, it’s neuro-science.* And this is why I speak, write and teach, again and again, about REPRESENTATION.

Because I am not in favor of a culture dominated by a Whiteness which insists on denying the value of other peoples, of their languages, their histories and their ancestry. And I am not in favor of a culture in which the cost of “success” is participation in the further eradication of one’s own people and culture.

Representation Matters. And it changes the world.

If you’re in the PNW, join me on March 30 for my one day writing workshop called “REPRESENT!” And express yourself as you really are, not who the White culture wants you to be so you can “succeed.”

*For a scholarly perspective on mirror neurons and literature, see Literary Biomimesis: Mirror Neurons and the Ontological Priority of Representation by Deborah Jenon and Marco Iacobini

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.