Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.
We cannot leave it to others to write our stories for us; we all have the right, and the responsibility, to write. This was my main takeaway from Nigerian writer Chimamanda's wise and powerful TED Talk, which argues beautifully the ways that stories shape our world. What we think, we become, and stories are the canvas on which we paint our thoughts.
Our story is our choice, and we need to tell it.
I grew up in a farm community before it was cool and in fashion. "Farm to table" wasn't a choice, it was a way of life - and it wasn't glamorous. By global standards, we were not poor, but by American standards, we were.
I worked hard in school for as long as I can remember, and with the help of grant money and federal financial aid, I was able to attend the University of Pennsylvania - where my freshman tuition far exceeded my mother's annual income.
I remember meeting one of my hall mates at our freshman picnic. He asked me if I was a Franklin Scholar, which I'd later learn was a program at Penn for incoming freshmen that were expected to be the highest achievers in the class, based upon their admissions applications. In other words, they were the cream of the crop. I asked how I would know if I was part of the program. His curt reply ("If you don't know,, then you aren't") made me feel unworthy in a place where I already felt completely out of place due to my socioeconomic level. He never spoke to me again, and when I passed him in the hallway, he looked the other way every time. Encounters like this made me feel out of my league at Penn from day one. The truth is that when you grow up without enough you think you aren't enough, period.
Financial resources weren't the only ones that were scarce in my childhood My father was a severe man. I have exactly two happy memories of him from the 16 years I knew him. That's one story of my childhood, and if I'm honest, it's the dominant one. Chimamanda speaks about the need for balance, a blending of many stories from many perspectives about a single person or place. The truth is in the mix, not in the loudest voice. If I think long and hard enough, I have other childhood stories: making mud pies with my sister, digging holes in our backyard in pursuit of dinosaur fossils, and climbing trees with the wind in our hair and our dogs barking down below.
If my father did nothing else that was good for me, he inspired my love of travel, not because he traveled but because he gave me access to other worlds. He read the Sunday New York Times, every scrap of it, every week. He completed every crossword puzzle in ink without a mistake. He read so intensely that he wasn't aware of anything else happening around him. When he was finished with it, I would sneak away with sections of it, and my favorite was the travel section. Every summer, they put together a special magazine section that advertised vacations to faraway lands. Having never left the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. for the first 18 years of my life, I constantly ordered away for travel catalogs. I would call the 1-800 numbers in the Times travel section and a few days later, I'd get a stack of the brochures in the mail, addressed to me. I'd run to the mailbox and pour over them the moment they arrived. I kept them neatly organized and stacked under my bed, and when times got very difficult at home, I'd retreat to my travel brochures and dream about a someday when I would live a better life somewhere far away.
If my childhood had been blissful, if my father had been more interested in raising me than in reading the New York Times, and again, if I had been enough of something to hold his attention, then I might have never found my love for travel, for dreaming, and yes, for stories. And that, too, is part of my childhood story just as much as his neglect and disinterest.
Going back to my experience at Penn - fortunately, feeling inadequate wasn't the only story from my college years. Once I found theater, I made Penn my home. That extracurricular activity ignited what would become a professional career in Broadway theater management and my lifelong involvement with storytelling in many and varied forms. Now I'm a full-time writer. Last year I wrote my first play, Sing After Storms, which debuted at the 2014 Thespis Theater Festival in New York City. It's based on an event from my childhood that has haunted me for the better part of three decades -- and it's an example of how writing has helped me make sense of my story, and make it my own.
By heritage, we are all storytellers. If we trace our roots back far enough into the past, we will all find a direct and unbreakable link to the campfire, and to the storytellers who used that campfire as a stage to explain, illuminate, inspire, grieve for, and laugh with their communities. Stories are our voices and we all have a voice. Storytelling is as much a human right as breathing, eating, and deciding how, with whom, and on what we spend our time. As Chimamanda so eloquently and truthfully states, "Stories are a kind of paradise" -- and they're ours for the taking.
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