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Unlike the many talented storytellers here this evening, I can’t tell a tale unless it’s written down. Actually, until very recently I would not have called myself much of a storyteller at all — out of respect for the term. A storyteller was someone with a generative, unlimited imagination, the kind of person who makes worlds: someone like CS Lewis, say, or Ursula K Le Guin. Imagine a world in a wardrobe or a planet in which gender is not a fixed state but a condition, changing season by season. Those are stories. My own writing seemed to me more prosaic. I don’t make up marvelous tales. I only try to express — as clearly as possible — the thoughts and feelings many people have. Often my subjects are the simplest things in the world: joy, family, the weather, houses, streets. Nothing fancy. And when I sit down with these subjects my aim is clarity. I’m really trying to clear some of the muddle from my own brain — my brain being a very muddled place indeed. Sometimes I think my whole professional life has been based on this hunch I had, early on, that many people feel just as muddled as I do, and might be happy to tag along with me on this search for clarity, for precision. I love that aspect of writing. Nothing makes me happier than to hear a reader say: that’s just what I’ve always felt, but you said it clearly. I feel then that I’ve achieved something useful. But that has often seemed far away from real story-telling, and in truth there have been times over the past decade when I have felt quite distant from stories and unsure how to tell them. I forgot — as the rappers like to say — why I got into this game in the first place.
Then I had kids. But what a boring story: “Then I had kids.” Still, I have to be truthful. And the truth is something happened when I had kids. I went from not being able to think of a single story to being unable to stop seeing stories pretty much every place I looked. Now, before anybody raises a hand to object, I am not a biological essentialist, nor one of these people who believe a gift for empathy arrives along with the placenta. The explanation, in my opinion, is less dramatic: storybooks. For the first time since childhood I am back in the realm of stories and storybooks — three stories read out loud to a four year old, every night, on pain of death — and this practice has reawakened in me something I thought I’d misplaced a long time ago, on book tour, perhaps, or in the back row of a university lecture hall. This feeling of narrative possibility and wonder — this idea that every person is a world. How could I have forgotten that? Did I really almost drift away, down that anemic, intellectual path where storytelling is considered vulgar and characters a stain on the purity of a sentence? Dear Lord — almost. I’m so grateful now to have the opportunity to reacquaint myself with stories like The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl. I lie in bed with my daughter, reading aloud this Kafkaesque tale of a family of duck hunters, who wake up one morning with wings where their arms should be, and it sends me back to my desk with an ease and fluidity I haven’t felt since my own childhood.
Which is all to say this lovely award has come at the right moment, just when I find myself falling back in love with stories and appreciating anew what an unprecedented privilege it is to make your living telling them. The unlikeliest story of my life is the one about the girl from Willesden who found readers in the United States, and not a little of the credit for that is due to my good friend — and one-time publicist — Kimberly Burns, who is here tonight. Thank you. And thanks to everyone at The Moth for giving me an opportunity to use this stage to say thank you in person to some of my American readers, for their unexpected generosity, for the gift of their attention and time.
Now, I have one more person to thank, but before that I want to tell a short story concerning my first conscious experience of story-telling. I think when it’s done you may better understand the root of my conflicted feelings toward the form. Here goes:
Once upon a time, I was nine. It was summer in England, the sky was blue but also full of clouds. I was not — how can I put this — overburdened with friends. It was warm, but school was still in session, and this presented the insolvable problem of break time, for there is only so long you can walk around a playground pretending to be looking for your playmates. To hide my isolation, I spent a lot of time looking at the clouds, and at a strange ivy-covered tower that stood next door to our school. In the attic of that building, I decided, a tragic young woman lived, the prisoner of a God who did not want this girl to marry her true love, Superman. It didn’t make sense, but it was a story, and I got good at telling it. In order to draw attention to myself, I started telling it to kids in the playground. It grew more elaborate each time I told it, and I always finished up by swearing on my mother’s life. I swear! I swear there’s a young woman up there, and she’s sending smoke signals into the sky — in the shape of clouds — so when you see one that looks like superman, put a tac in your shoe. The more people with tacs in their shoe, the louder it will sound when you walk, and the louder it sounds when you walk, the — Oh, I don’t remember. There must have been a logic to it, but I can’t recall now what it was. Anyway the takeaway was: tac in the shoe. I was hell bent on this tac-in-the-shoe business. You’ve got to put a tac in your shoe or the poor girl will die! It’s true! I swear on my mother’s life! It’s a miracle my mother survived that summer.
Well, people seemed to be into my story, everyone seemed into it, really, all except this one girl — her name was Anupma — who proved to be a sceptic. She was very smart, Anupma — that was part of the problem. She was not moved by rhetoric. She had a fundamental logical issue with the smoke signals/clouds/superman trifecta. And one day, apropos of nothing at all — she turned to me in the playing fields and said: “That story isn’t true. It’s a lie. And I’m going to tell everyone.” And she started to run towards our classrooms. Watching her go, I experienced the ten-year-old version of acute despair. Everything I’d built, all my new friends, indeed, my sense of my own value — all of it seemed dependent on this ridiculous story, and she was threatening to reveal it for what it was: a lie. I had to stop her from reaching that classroom. I ran after her. She was fast — it wasn’t easy. But just by the sandpit, I put my leg in front of hers like an Italian footballer and dragged her violently to the ground, where her knee promptly split open and bled all over the concrete. Crying, filthy, she lay defeated on the floor, and the look she gave me I have never forgotten. It was a horrified question: What kind of a person is this? The nurse came; Anupma was taken to the medical room to be patched up, and as far as I know she did not rat on me, neither concerning my lies nor my casual brutality. At least, I was allowed to pass unmolested on to class. I caught up with my classmates in the hall. “What is that noise?” asked the teacher as we shuffled into class. Tap tap tap. It took me a second to recognize it myself. Tacs in every shoe.
Tonight my husband is here, and he has heard that story many times. Having known each other 20 years there isn’t a story of mine he hasn’t heard many times and vice versa. He rolls his eyes at this one in particular because of the mix of humble-brag and pure ruthlessness it displays — but he’s a storyteller, too, and I think he knows what I mean by telling it. Storytelling is a magical, ruthless discipline. The people who tell stories are often tempted to create a hierarchy in their lives, in which stories come before everything else, including people. Part of my anxiety about storytelling is an awareness of that monomaniacal part of me that is willing to wrestle a little girl to the ground in order to preserve the integrity of a story. I know that part of me exists, but I really try to suppress it, because I want to find an accommodation between telling stories about life and living it well. In this accommodation, no one and no story can compare with Nick, who is every bit as ruthlessly dedicated to writing as I am, but who has besides a capacity for love and kindness that I know I will spend my lifetime trying to equal. Without you, I would not be telling stories all — I’d just be kicking little girls in the face. The luckiest thing that happened to me — besides becoming a professional storyteller — is marrying one, and as I don’t often get a chance to say thank you publically, I wanted to do so now. Thank you.
The act of putting our losses into words and letting the world eavesdrop seems some sort of consolation, or at least an acknowledgement that we all suffer such losses.
in the poem below, lloyd schwartz lets the world eavesdrop on him losing a friend (note how he does it in a way that’s unique/personal to him yet still relatable to others). share your reactions to the poem + similar experiences in the comments. via poets.org:
To My Oldest Friend, Whose Silence Is Like a Death
by Lloyd Schwartz
In today’s paper, a story about our high school drama
teacher evicted from his Carnegie Hall rooftop apartment
made me ache to call you–the only person I know
who’d still remember his talent, his good looks, his self-
absorption. We’d laugh (at what haven’t we laughed?), then
not laugh, wondering what became of him. But I can’t call,
because I don’t know what became of you.
–After sixty years, with no explanation, you’re suddenly
not there. Gone. Phone disconnected. I was afraid
you might be dead. But you’re not dead.
You’ve left, your landlord says. He has your new unlisted
number but insists on “respecting your privacy.” I located
your oldest son, who refuses to tell me anything except that
you’re alive and not ill. Your ex-wife ignores my letters.
What’s happened? Are you in trouble? Something
you’ve done? Something I’ve done?
We used to tell each other everything: our automatic
reference points to childhood pranks, secret codes,
and sexual experiments. How many decades since we started
singing each other “Happy Birthday” every birthday?
(Your last uninhibited rendition is still on my voice mail.)
How often have we exchanged our mutual gratitude–the easy
unthinking kindnesses of long friendship.
This mysterious silence isn’t kind. It keeps me
up at night, bewildered, at some “stage” of grief.
Would your actual death be easier to bear?
I crave your laugh, your quirky takes, your latest
comedy of errors. “When one’s friends hate each other,”
Pound wrote near the end of his life, “how can there be
peace in the world?” We loved each other. Why why why
am I dead to you?
Our birthdays are looming. The older I get, the less and less
I understand this world,
and the people in it.
a.) “we learn
as a child
to feel the wind
and exist in consciousness,
b.) “we learn
as a child
to feel the wind
and exist in consciousness
remembering our lost moments”
c.) something else…
Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.
Lots of people procrastinate, of course, but for writers it is a peculiarly common occupational hazard. One book editor I talked to fondly reminisced about the first book she was assigned to work on, back in the late 1990s. It had gone under contract in 1972.
I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”
Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.
Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.
This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes. Your stuff may not—indeed, probably won’t—be the best anymore.
If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.
Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fears of turning in something terrible. But I’ve watched a surprising number of young journalists wreck, or nearly wreck, their careers by simply failing to hand in articles. These are all college graduates who can write in complete sentences, so it is not that they are lazy incompetents. Rather, they seem to be paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that isn’t very good.
“Exactly!” said Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, when I floated this theory by her. One of the best-known experts in the psychology of motivation, Dweck has spent her career studying failure, and how people react to it. As you might expect, failure isn’t all that popular an activity. And yet, as she discovered through her research, not everyone reacts to it by breaking out in hives. While many of the people she studied hated tasks that they didn’t do well, some people thrived under the challenge. They positively relished things they weren’t very good at—for precisely the reason that they should have: when they were failing, they were learning.
Dweck puzzled over what it was that made these people so different from their peers. It hit her one day as she was sitting in her office (then at Columbia), chewing over the results of the latest experiment with one of her graduate students: the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it’s something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at.
“There was this eureka moment,” says Dweck. She now identifies the former group as people with a “fixed mind-set,” while the latter group has a “growth mind-set.” Whether you are more fixed or more of a grower helps determine how you react to anything that tests your intellectual abilities. For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is. Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors.
This fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are is so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome. A shocking number of successful people (particularly women), believe that they haven’t really earned their spots, and are at risk of being unmasked as frauds at any moment. Many people deliberately seek out easy tests where they can shine, rather than tackling harder material that isn’t as comfortable.
If they’re forced into a challenge they don’t feel prepared for, they may even engage in what psychologists call “self-handicapping”: deliberately doing things that will hamper their performance in order to give themselves an excuse for not doing well. Self-handicapping can be fairly spectacular: in one study, men deliberately chose performance-inhibitingdrugs when facing a task they didn’t expect to do well on. “Instead of studying,” writes the psychologist Edward Hirt, “a student goes to a movie the night before an exam. If he performs poorly, he can attribute his failure to a lack of studying rather than to a lack of ability or intelligence. On the other hand, if he does well on the exam, he may conclude that he has exceptional ability, because he was able to perform well without studying.”
Writers who don’t produce copy—or leave it so long that they couldn’t possibly produce something good—are giving themselves the perfect excuse for not succeeding.
“Work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” For people with an extremely fixed mind-set, that tipping point quite often never happens. They fear nothing so much as finding out that they never had what it takes.
“The kids who race ahead in the readers without much supervision get praised for being smart,” says Dweck. “What are they learning? They’re learning that being smart is not about overcoming tough challenges. It’s about finding work easy. When they get to college or graduate school and it starts being hard, they don’t necessarily know how to deal with that.”
Our educational system is almost designed to foster a fixed mind-set. Think about how a typical English class works: You read a “great work” by a famous author, discussing what the messages are, and how the author uses language, structure, and imagery to convey them. You memorize particularly pithy quotes to be regurgitated on the exam, and perhaps later on second dates. Students are rarely encouraged to peek at early drafts of those works. All they see is the final product, lovingly polished by both writer and editor to a very high shine. When the teacher asks “What is the author saying here?” no one ever suggests that the answer might be “He didn’t quite know” or “That sentence was part of a key scene in an earlier draft, and he forgot to take it out in revision.”
Or consider a science survey class. It consists almost entirely of the theories that turned out to be right—not the folks who believed in the mythical “N-rays,” declared that human beings had forty-eight chromosomes, or saw imaginary canals on Mars. When we do read about falsified scientific theories of the past—Lamarckian evolution, phrenology, reproduction by “spontaneous generation”—the people who believed in them frequently come across as ludicrous yokels, even though many of them were distinguished scientists who made real contributions to their fields.
“You never see the mistakes, or the struggle,” says Dweck. No wonder students get the idea that being a good writer is defined by not writing bad stuff.
Unfortunately, in your own work, you are confronted with every clunky paragraph, every labored metaphor and unending story that refuses to come to a point. “The reason we struggle with”insecurity,” says Pastor Steven Furtick, “is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”
About six years ago, commentators started noticing a strange pattern of behavior among the young millennials who were pouring out of college. Eventually, the writer Ron Alsop would dub them the Trophy Kids. Despite the sound of it, this has nothing to do with “trophy wives.” Rather, it has to do with the way these kids were raised. This new generation was brought up to believe that there should be no winners and no losers, no scrubs or MVPs. Everyone, no matter how ineptly they perform, gets a trophy.
As these kids have moved into the workforce, managers complain that new graduates expect the workplace to replicate the cosy, well-structured environment of school. They demand concrete, well-described tasks and constant feedback, as if they were still trying to figure out what was going to be on the exam. “It’s very hard to give them negative feedback without crushing their egos,” one employer told Bruce Tulgan, the author of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy. “They walk in thinking they know more than they know.”
When I started asking around about this phenomenon, I was a bit skeptical. After all, us old geezers have been grousing about those young whippersnappers for centuries. But whenever I brought the subject up, I got a torrent of complaints, including from people who have been managing new hires for decades. They were able to compare them with previous classes, not just with some mental image of how great we all were at their age. And they insisted that something really has changed—something that’s not limited to the super-coddled children of the elite.
“I’ll hire someone who’s twenty-seven, and he’s fine,” says Todd, who manages a car rental operation in the Midwest. “But if I hire someone who’s twenty-three or twenty-four, they need everything spelled out for them, they want me to hover over their shoulder. It’s like somewhere in those three or four years, someone flipped a switch.” They are probably harder working and more conscientious than my generation. But many seem intensely uncomfortable with the comparatively unstructured world of work. No wonder so many elite students go into finance and consulting—jobs that surround them with other elite grads, with well-structured reviews and advancement.
Today’s new graduates may be better credentialed than previous generations, and are often very hardworking, but only when given very explicit direction. And they seem to demand constant praise. Is it any wonder, with so many adults hovering so closely over every aspect of their lives? Frantic parents of a certain socioeconomic level now give their kids the kind of intensive early grooming that used to be reserved for princelings or little Dalai Lamas.
All this “help” can be actively harmful. These days, I’m told, private schools in New York are (quietly, tactfully) trying to combat a minor epidemic of expensive tutors who do the kids’ work for them, something that would have been nearly unthinkable when I went through the system 20 years ago. Our parents were in league with the teachers, not us. But these days, fewer seem willing to risk letting young Silas or Gertrude fail out of the Ivy League.
Thanks to decades of expansion, there are still enough spaces for basically every student who wants to go to college. But there’s a catch: Most of those new spaces were created at less selective schools. Two-thirds of Americans now attend a college that, for all intents and purposes, admits anyone who applies. Spots at the elite schools—the top 10 percent—have barely kept up with population growth. Meanwhile demand for those slots has grown much faster, because as the economy has gotten more competitive, parents are looking for a guarantee that their children will be successful. A degree from an elite school is the closest thing they can think of.
So we get Whiffle Parenting: constant supervision to ensure that a kid can’t knock themselves off the ladder that is thought to lead, almost automatically, through a selective college and into the good life. It’s an entirely rational reaction to an educational system in which the stakes are always rising, and any small misstep can knock you out of the race. But is this really good parenting? A golden credential is no guarantee of success, and in the process of trying to secure one for their kids, parents are depriving them of what they really need: the ability to learn from their mistakes, to be knocked down and to pick themselves up—the ability, in other words, to fail gracefully. That is probably the most important lesson our kids will learn at school, and instead many are being taught the opposite.
My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears
by Mohja Kahf
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares
Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom
My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,
as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”
Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display
I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I
hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.
“I became a father two years ago, and parenthood seems to have opened new emotional currents in me, which are working their way into my writing. This poem of course takes its title from Margaret Wise Brown’s beautiful book for children, Goodnight Moon, published in 1947. My wife and I have been reading the book to our son, Henry.”
I used to be as unsentimental as anyone could be.
Now I’m almost absurd, a clown, carrying you on my shoulders
around and around Palmer Square, through the cold night wind,
as stores lock up, and begin closing down. Goodnight,
fair trade coffee. Goodnight, Prada shoes. Goodnight soon,
my little son. You’re a toothy, two-foot-something sumo–a giddy,
violent elf–jabbing your finger at the moon, which you’ve
begun noticing in the last week or two. Moom, moom–for you,
the word ends with a mumming, as it begins. For me, beginnings
and endings are getting hard to tell apart. There was
another child your mom and I conceived, who’d now be reading
and teaching you to read–who we threw away when he or she
was smaller than a watermelon seed. The chairs, the domestic bears,
the clocks, the socks, the house–once again a strange cow
springs from the green ground, beginning the enormous leap
that will carry her above the moon.
here’s a brand new poem for the atomic lemon drops series. i’ve been working on this one for a while and recently got it to a spot where it’s worthy of your attention. check it out + the usual background on the piece below. share any questions & reactions in the comment section.
Blue Roses Pt. II
When the quiet comes,
watch me pop-lock into Death’s
old school Caddy. Bloodclot
red, rims lean to the side,
we cruise the city of angels
looking for God. That bum
on the corner said:
“You’ll see Him near Sunset,
draped in everever & grace.
At His heels swoon stars,
burning for true scriptures
and a picture near Perfection.
He signed mine with a rainbow.”
Her sign said: