Last week I sat in a circle with about ten others. It was the second time I taught a course called Tell It, a one-day journey through the Telling Your Story course curriculum. We were going around the room, introducing ourselves and filling in a bit of the story of how we came be there--in that workshop on that day.
Two or three people said, "I wanted to take this course last year, but I was too scared."
I had heard such rumblings the previous year, which is why I decided to offer it a second time. "I wanted to take your class, but I'm too introverted." "I wanted to take the course, but I'm not one of those Really Confident People."
I knew I needed to do a better job at describing what this work is and who it's for, because you don't have to be a stage performer to do this work. You don't have to be the Life of the Party or the One Who Always Tells Stories at Family Dinners (I'm not). The majority of my storytelling friends are more likely to be the ones thoughtfully observing life as it unfolds, not riding it like a mechanical bull and slapping its ass.
Here is what I know for sure:
- Everyone has stories worth telling.
- Yes, I mean YOU.
- Making conscious choices about the stories we tell ourselves and others transforms us.
- For that reason, it requires courage.
- The courage to see, to be true, to change.
- And the courage to share our stories and ourselves. To be seen just as we are, and just as we are not.
- It is a journey best made in the company of kindreds: seekers, truth-tellers, occasional cover-divers. People who know that crumbly knee-wobbly feeling that is what it feels like to be brave.
I woke up a few days ago thinking that I should share this story I told here in New York last December. Does that ever happen to you--right after waking a little courage slips through your carefully guarded cracks? So I got out of bed and pulled up the video and watched it. And immediately changed my mind.
This started an interior debate over which was the true wisdom--the whim or the reason?
My rational mind has tallied it up, and there are 512 reasons why I shouldn't share this video. I'm dying to inventory every one of them right here, but they have this very tedious and exhausting quality to them and the compassionate side of me is begging to spare you that.
To be honest, I am failing at coming up with a single reason why I should. But it's haunting me a little, this vague sense that maybe just one person needs to hear it, for some reason I simply cannot imagine. And then I watched Brené's last talk, and I'll confess it's made me feel momentarily just the tiniest bit brave.
Last fall Peter Aguero asked me to do this experimental new Unplugged show with The BTK Band, his improvised storytelling rock band. Usually raucous and wild with a full line-up of guest storytellers, in the Unplugged show BTK would be dialed down, with one guest storyteller sitting in for the whole night. The set-up was: four stories--longer and looser than we usually tell (he begged me to stay loose), with the band breaking out of their usual verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus mode and letting the music be longer and looser as well. There were even chairs. (I had never sat down onstage.)
I brought four stories that had never been told onstage (some of which I don't tell off-stage, either). It's unrehearsed, completely improvised. Just me jumping, with the band and some friends in the audience my only net.
This wasn't the first time that Peter did something that almost made me lose it and cry onstage. I'm guessing it won't be the last. Jeff Scherer (off camera) sings the chorus. This was the second story I told that night. (Contains explicit language.)
Now I'm going to cook dinner and pretend I did not just post this.
What a night!
I was up past my bedtime, performing in the Moth GrandSLAM, a championship show in which 10 winners of Moth StorySLAMS come together in an evening that is part showcase, part competition featuring some of the best live storytelling around.
And last night was no disappointment.
Before the show I talked new belts and water bottles with some of my fellow performers, many of whom were stepping onto the GrandSLAM stage for the first time. When the doors opened, the party really started. I was honored and delighted that Amy Williamson and Maya Stein traveled in to see the show. Many of my storytelling pals were in the house, including Ed Gavagan, Jim O'Grady, Ben Lillie, Steven Berkowitz, Peter Aguero, and Steve Zimmer sharing the stage with me--in addition to the friendly faces that make up The Moth staff and support.
A room of profound listening.
Our host for the evening, Dan Kennedy, was completely cracking me up, as usual. If you haven't read his book, Rock On: An Office Power Ballad, go to audible.com and download it today. I'm super picky about memoirs, and I loved hearing this one in Dan's own voice so, so much.
The other three female storytellers were picked out of the hat right off the bat--one, two, three. And they were slaying it. I honestly can't remember a night so filled with heart and soul from start to finish as last night was. I was SO proud to be a New York City storyteller, so honored to be in their company.
During intermission I checked in with Amy and Maya, who were engaged in a hot debate at their table about the scoring and we jammed for awhile about what makes a good story. As an audience member, I always love it when I get lost in a story--totally immersed in a character, a world, or in a moment.
I was the 6th or 7th storyteller of the night, and I told the story of our move to New York City, almost exactly five years after we walked off that airplane and into the great unknown of our coming life. If you had told me back then that this was the future awaiting me, I'm not sure I would have been able to believe it if I tried.
It's hard for me to explain what it's like to have a place like this stage where I can simply be who I am and tell it like I see it, to have my words received by rooms filled with people offering the most generous kind listening, and to be held by a community of tellers who hold story sacred.
The very first time I walked up onto a stage like this was just over three years ago. Dan Kennedy was hosting that night, too, and I remember I was wearing red shoes as I stepped up onto the stage and I felt like Dorothy coming home.
I think it's felt like that ever since.
At the end of the night, I tied with Ben Moskowitz to win. My first thought this morning when I woke up was that it had all been a dream.
Then I remembered: it was a dream, once. But now it's real.
When putting together the Telling Your Story course, I wanted to add interviews with some of my friends--people who were not only amazing storytellers themselves, but who also had experience teaching storytelling. I loved the idea of working with Peter and Ophira, and giving us a chance hear from someone from a comedy background and someone from an improv background, to explore how our varied experiences impact the way we approach the art and craft of this medium.
Also, I will own up to some purely selfish motivations: there were some conversations I was longing to have, conversations that don't happen standing in line for a show or hanging out in a crowded bar afterward. There were questions I wanted to ask these two that really require a quiet room, the chance to sit face to face, cozy into your chair and really be listened to.
Ophira Eisenberg is a celebrated comic who has appeared on Comedy Central and was named a "Top Ten Comic" by New York Magazine. I've always been drawn to Ophira because she's so damn real. So much of the time when she makes me laugh, it's this laughter of surprise because she has said something so honest, and so previously unrecognized or unnamed that I'm like, "Oh my god it's so TRUE!" She has this astute observation and this willingness to own up to all kinds of things that simultaneously inspires me and makes me feel relief at not being "the only one".
A lot of people can rock a persona or a character on stage, but it takes something else entirely to stand in front of a crowd and a microphone, under a spotlight and just be true. Ophira is the real deal, all the way, and it's no surprise that she is so beloved in our community. I love that her Sound Studio interview gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how she navigates vulnerability and how she prepares stories with high emotional content.
Whenever I think about the way that love makes us brave, I think about The BTK Band. The improvisational storytelling rock band, led by Peter Aguero, is my favorite to stand on stage with when I'm telling the stories that are hard to tell. They're the ultimate safety net--I know I won't lose their affection, even if I swing out wide and fall, and there is literally no where I can go that they won't go with me. I wanted TYS participants to feel that same safety, that same sense of bold permission, and having Peter collaborate on the project was the perfect way to create that.
Peter really embodies this mix of badassery and tenderness that gives me hope for my own budding inner baddass. In his sound studio interview, he gives participants the full range, addressing fears with compassionate, bold advice. He shares about the stories that have changed him forever and what gets lost when we hold back.
We recorded the Sound Studio first, in December 2010, and as I designed and finished the interactive curriculum I did my best to infuse the whole project with the spirit and sensibilities of Peter and Ophira, just as much as my own. The result is that this project is more urban and more rock and roll than anything I've previously produced. It's really an hommage to the NYC storytelling community, featuring photos of some of our favorite venues and quotes and wisdom from the friends and mentors that have taught me everything I know about the art and craft of storytelling.
There is no greater gift than working in the company of friends, and creating the Telling Your Story course with Peter and Ophira was nothing short of a dream come true.
You can find Ophira's comedy album, As Is, on iTunes. Her memoir, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy, will be available through Perseus Books in Spring of 2012.
The BTK Band can be found causing trouble the second Monday of every month, Under St. Mark's Theater. Peter and I will be together again for BARE on December 29th.
I've been crazy sick this week--the kind that makes you stumble down the street when you're not laid out flat in bed--but even in this compromised state I managed some serious excitement yesterday when the Telling Your Story Sound Studio CDs arrived.
The three disc set, featuring extensive interviews with Peter Aguero and Ophira Eisenberg, is packaged in a beautiful 8-panel digipak designed by the amazing Liz Kalloch. To be able to hold these exquisite objects in your hands helps the possibilities they hold seem even more tangible and real. It's not just in your head or on your computer, it's in your car and your kitchen and on the little stand next to your bed--always reminding you of the path and all the possibilities it holds. Giving you permission to be a new way in the world--you own it. Your stories are just as worthy of being told as any of ours, and these physical manifestations of so many powerful truths will not let you forget it.
The Telling Your Story course starts shipping tomorrow. Be bold and audacious--be one of the first in the world to hold these treasures in your hands.
The other thing I was so thrilled to receive yesterday was our first, full-color four-page Jen Lee Productions catalog, which will go out with every order this winter. It's so amazing to see all that we're up to, all together. There is so much to celebrate with you.
What ARE these new resources, exactly, and when is your next retreat?
My next live event is in March at Teahouse Studio in Berkeley, CA. I'm bringing a whole bunch of my friends--amazing, inspiring women are gonna be in the house--and I hope you can come join us. I'm looking forward to the workshop format, which is more affordable for locals and still convenient for us out-of-towners to come in and stay at the hotel across the street, or in town with friends. The conversation we'll create about The Art of Creative Wellness is one I am living and breathing over here--one that makes us or breaks us. Read more and claim your spot here.
As for the next retreat, I'm really not sure. I'm doing a limited number of live events right now. In terms of presence and community, it's an ideal way to be together and interact with these powerful conversations. But in terms of tuition and the limited spots available for attendees, it's not so ideal. That's why I'm in the midst of a long season of producing resources that make the content of 12-week workshops or 5-day retreats available, for a fraction of the cost, to anyone in the world. No plane ticket required.
If you've been looking for opportunities to work with me, or suspecting that our paths are running in kindred directions, these courses are for you. I have so much to share (with more coming very soon)--this is the best way to make these conversations available to the most people, in a form so personal and intimate that it's the next best thing to being together live.
These practices, insights and conversations have changed my life, and they can change yours, too. Join me: find your voice. Tell your story. Share this work with those friends who are looking for Just This.