As a storyteller - and perhaps a human being - one of the worst things that can happen to me is for someone to doubt my story.
I have stood on stages all over the world and shared some of the most difficult and painful moments of my life. Embarrassing situations. Despicable decisions. Immoral acts. Heartbreaking, life altering events. And I've also shared the occasional triumph. Important revelations. Those tiny steps forward.
I don't hold back. I always share the truth. The uglier, the better.
Nevertheless, five times in my life, someone has expressed doubt in one of my stories.
At a Moth StorySLAM in 2014, I told the story of cheating in my high school's science fair and placing third, propelling me onto the state finals at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. After leaving the stage, a man approached and said, "Good story, but I don't know if it's true."
After telling a story at Speak Up about the time I taught my students to lie in order to win a school-wide penny drive, a man said, "Funny story, but I have a hard time believing it." On that night, my former principal - who played a key role in the story - was in the audience. I offered to bring the man to my former principal for verification, but he passed. Not surprising.
A magazine editor once rejected one of my stories, claiming that she doubted that my moment of revelation was as succinct and powerful as I made it out to be.
I won't go into details regarding the other two incidents (though one story involves my best friend, who remains annoyed about someone doubting our adventure to this day), but rest assured that all five expressions of doubt cut me to the bone. Not only did they hurt me in the moment, but they lead me to wonder if they are just the tip of the iceberg.
How many more people out there doubt my stories?
People who take my storytelling workshops quickly understand how and why I have so many stories to tell. I teach strategies and exercises designed to find and develop stories from our lives. I've dedicated my life to finding these story-worthy moments, and as my wife is fond of saying, I am often able to turn many seemingly small moments into fully realized stories.
I've also led a story-worthy life, which is not necessarily a great thing. I was homeless. Jailed. Arrested for a crime I did not commit. I went through a windshield. Died and was brought back to life following a bee sting. Rescued from a burning home by firefighters. I was the victim of a horrific armed robbery and an unprecedented attempt to slander my reputation and destroy by career. I have witnessed and experienced violence that most people only see on TV and film. I suffered through crushing poverty more than once in my life.
It's not the life I would have necessarily chosen, but it is mine. It's my truth. It's me.
So to doubt my stories is to doubt my life. To doubt my truth. Doubting my stories means that the struggle and pain and terror and embarrassment that I have suffered is called to question. It means that my scars - both physical and emotional - are irrelevant. That the vulnerability I am willing to brave onstage is meaningless.
It hurts. It hurts more than you could imagine.
I have been to hundreds of storytelling shows, and I have heard a few stories that I doubt. Perhaps more than a few. But I always listen with an open heart and mind, and if I doubt the veracity of a story, I keep my mouth shut, because I don't know for sure. I will never know for sure. And I know how much it hurts to doubt a story that is true.
It requires courage to stand on a stage and share your most private and painful moments.
It requires almost nothing to stab that storyteller in the heart with a dagger filled with doubt.
It's only happened to me five times in five years, and yet each one of those expressions of doubt still hurts me today. I remember them like they are yesterday.
It's hard to live a hard life and be told that you are not believed. It's no fun to work on a story for days, weeks, months, and even years, only to be told by someone that they don't think it's true.
Words so rarely hurt me anymore. A lifetime of fight and struggle have blunted most of their power to me. But these words of doubt - these small moments of skepticism - are piercing and permanent to me.