Many people have asked me about my experience reading for Listen To Your Mother – Twin Cities. This is my answer. It is not short.
Side note: I wrote most of it before hearing that Maya Angelou died today, but as the Internet filled with quotations I found this one especially apt: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
I did not practice my piece out loud alone, ever. In fact, even before my audition the only time I read it aloud was on a bench outside the audition venue, where it was about 35 degrees. Why I bother to wear makeup when any exposure to the elements turns me a blotchy pink remains a mystery.
I rehearsed only at rehearsals, briefly wishing I had honed my delivery better before choosing to pat myself on the back for not overthinking it.
I didn’t even obsess about my clothes. For a while I entertained the idea of buying something new, but fortunately I remembered that shopping for new clothes is at least as likely to be depressing as it is to be fun. Better to stick with the familiar: simple top, black pants. I had not seen the black pants in a few months, but no matter, they would materialize eventually. Wash enough clothes, and slowly they would rise to the top of laundry heap. Put it out of my mind.
Until the day before, when I still could not find my pants. Suddenly my pants and their absence were no longer a sign of my devil-may-care insouciance. My pants became the emblem of my unpreparedness for this event, if not for life in general. My inability to rein in or track down a single pair of black cotton-rayon blend pants was starting to represent the folly of the whole enterprise: exposing myself, quite possibly revealing that the emperor has no clothes.
After the drama these pants caused on my Facebook wall for days, I wish this story had a hilariously poignant ending. In truth I found the pants hanging on a hook in the kids’ bathroom, under a Hogwarts robe of the same black shade, the morning of the show, and that was that. Soul-searching time is over. Time to put on the big-girl black pants and read.
I’ve auditioned for a couple of things lately, which has given me a chance to come face to face with what a chicken I’ve become. As a young woman auditioning for a cappella groups in college, I was self-confident to (past) the point of obnoxious. When a group groaned and told me they were tired of “Happy Birthday”–the song they told me to audition with–I said “Give me an A” and launched into a full recitative and aria from the Messiah, and then I turned them down when they called back. (Look, I’m just trying to be real here. I know it’s bad. Besides, I had a spot in the better group.)
So I’ve been surprised by the bundle of nerves that springs up when I poke my turtle head out into the world again. I’m presented with brand new, untried hurdles. Instead of “deep breath, best foot forward,” my self-talk sounds more like “she’s better than me, and oh no she’s better than me too, and what was I thinking” and so on.
I had been through this in the rehearsal process already, but the huge response the audience gave each reader made it all fresh and loud again. “My story isn’t that funny.” “My story isn’t that meaningful.” “My writing isn’t that poetic.” “My story isn’t that relatable.” And then, magically, my self-talk changed, and it said “Really, what are the odds that your story, your writing, your delivery are all the worst, that you’re the one who’s going to bomb when everyone else is doing so well?”
And they were doing so well. Every single woman stepped up and delivered the best reading of her piece yet. I was genuinely thrilled for each one, and it was truly like magic to watch each writer grow a little more expressive, a little more emboldened, sometimes a little more sassy. Every audience reaction, to the funny or the sad, provoked a fist-pumping “Yes!” in my heart. Throughout this process, without my realizing it, I had become a fellow bearer of these women’s stories. Their success was my joy, regardless of my individual performance.
I was second to last to read–the last before our co-producer Tracy brought it to a close. There are not a lot of words to say about it. I don’t know how personal or profound my story sounded to the audience. I laid out there, as best I could, a description of a major life transformation for which motherhood acted as the primary catalyst. (Video to come.) Though I think it was mostly funny, it touched lightly on some of the most vulnerable parts of me. And in response, people laughed, and said “ohhh” and “awwww,” and then, at the end, 500+ people clapped and yelled and cheered. I have gotten criticism and praise for my writing and ideas for 40 years, and I have sung other people’s songs for audiences large and small. But being seen and heard and embraced by a live audience, well that engenders feelings I could not have anticipated and can’t quite describe.
That feeling, it’s a big takeaway, but it’s something I can’t even begin to share or even use, because I don’t know how. So here’s something a little more practical and immediate.
As people began to ask me what my experience was like, I wanted to recommend it to them. I told writer friends in cities with an LTYM, “you should do this!” But it didn’t take long to recall that I have really awesome friends who have stories (everyone has stories), but who aren’t writers. Some, no matter how smart and thoughtful, aren’t even all that great with the written word. Yet I wanted for them that same experience of being seen, and known, and appreciated.
I am not as good at that as I would like to be. I do not click “like” on Facebook unless I am really feeling some serious excitement. I am suspicious of exclamation points. In person, I sometimes do not say hello to an acquaintance because I assume they don’t care about hearing it from me. I am surprised how often I think I’ve said something out loud, but it turns out it lived only in my mind. There are many reasons for this: good, bad, unknowable, idiotic.
Nevertheless since my LTYM experience I am resolved to pay it forward, to push past my scruples or decorum or shyness and give out more totally gratuitous recognition of both close friends and acquaintances. Gratuitous, as in it costs me very little to call out “Hi Jen” instead of smiling and looking down, or to comment “thanks for sharing” when someone posts interesting news. Gratuitous, as in no one need do anything especially amazing to earn it. Who they are is enough.
This is the gift I received, thanks to the effort and support of many people, including LTYM founder Ann Imig, and our Twin Cities co-producers Galit Breen, Tracy Morrison, and Vikki Reich. It is a gift I can try to pass on with very little effort at all.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou