Yesterday marked my five year anniversary in storytelling.
On July 12, 2011, I went to New York to tell a story on a Moth stage. I went there mostly because I told my friends that I would, and I had avoided it so long that I began to feel ashamed of myself.
My friends pointed me to The Moth and suggested that I go. One of my friends said, "You've had the worst life of anyone I know. You'll make a great storyteller!"
She was probably referring to my two near-death experiences, my arrest and trial for a crime I didn't commit, my homelessness, the robbery that left with with more than a decade of untreated PTSD, the anonymous, widespread, public attack on my character and career, and more.
It hasn't been the worst, but it hasn't always been easy.
So I said yes. "I'll go and tell a story." But honestly, I had little intention of ever doing so. I was terrified about the prospect of taking the stage and telling a story. It was almost unthinkable. But my friends didn't forget my promise, and nor did I, so Elysha and I made out way into NYC so I could tell what I thought would be the one and only story of my life.
Even after putting my name in the hat, I tried to avoid taking the stage. When Dan Kennedy called my name, I froze, realizing that no one in the place knew me. If I remained quiet and still, they would have to eventually call someone else to the stage.
Instead, Elysha made me go.
Happily, miraculously, I won the StorySLAM.
The next day, I wrote a blog post about my experience, which included these words:
I was remarkably prescient while writing that post. It seems as if I already knew that I had found something special.
And I was right. It was a big night for me. Since that night:
- I have competed in 45 StorySLAMs, winning 24 of them.
- I've competed in 17 GrandSLAMs, winning four of them.
- I've told stories for The Moth and other storytelling organizations in cities around the country to audiences as large as 2,000 people.
- I've become a teacher of storytelling, teaching in places like Yale University, The University of Connecticut Law School, Perdue University, Trinity College, Kripalu, Miss Porter's School, and many, many more. I consult with businesses, school districts, industry leaders, college professors, and individuals around the world about storytelling.
- Last summer I traveled to Brazil to teach storytelling to an American School in Sao Paulo.
- In the last year, I've begun to perform my one-person show.
- Storytelling has landed me in the pages of Reader's Digest, Parents magazine, and more.
- I've met some incredible people thanks to storytelling and made some remarkable friends.
In 2013, Elysha and I launched Speak Up, our own storytelling organization. We've produced nearly 50 shows since our inception, in theaters as large as 500 seats, and we have sold out almost every show. I teach storytelling workshops locally, and we partner with schools, libraries, museums, and more to teach storytelling to our community.
Last night Elysha and I worked with a group of second and third generation Holocaust survivors, teaching them to tell the story of their previous generations. Tonight I'll be competing in a StorySLAM in Boston. The beat goes on.
So much has happened in five short years. My life has changed in ways I would've never predicted. Elysha's life has changed, too. The fact that Speak Up is a partnership between the two of us might be the best thing about it.
Storytelling has helped make it possible for Elysha to stay home with the kids for the past seven years, and it will help to keep her home for one more year until Charlie enters kindergarten.
But here is what I want you to know:
The important part of my story to never forget how afraid I was when I began this journey. It's important to remember how I tried to avoid storytelling at every turn, not because I thought it was a bad idea or a waste of time, but because I was afraid. Even though I wanted to tell a story and suspected that I might even be good at storytelling, I tried my hardest to avoid it.
It's important to note that had it not been for my friends' prodding and Elysha's final push to get me out of my seat that night, I might have never taken the stage to tell a story.
It's easy to see someone who is successful and confident and believe that they have always been that way. We often see the end result of a journey and assume that the person standing in front of us is the same person who began that journey.
This is never true. I was afraid when I began my journey into storytelling. I doubted my ability. I was almost certain that I would fail. Fear kept me off the stage for more than a year, and it almost kept me off the stage forever.
Fear holds us back so often in life. It keeps us from realizing our untapped, unseen, impossible-to-predict potential. It blocks us from opportunities. It stops us from being daring. I keeps us away from new things and forces us to reside in the familiar.
Thoreau said that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
I believe that. I believe it wholeheartedly.
If fear is holding you back from trying something new, taking a risk, or realizing a dream, I encourage you to rise above it. Push that fear aside long enough to take a leap. Find people who will support you, encourage you, and even force you to try.
I think about how close I came to avoiding the stage, and it terrifies me.
Frank Herbert said this about fear, which I also believe wholeheartedly:
I shudder to think about what my life would be like today had I not taken that stage five years ago and told my first story. I hate to think about how fear nearly held me back.
I nearly went to the grave with a song still inside me.