There’s a saying I learned in Wilderness First Aid training: “don’t do, just think.”
It’s a flip of the more commonly heard: “don’t think, just do.”
Even though I didn’t encounter the phrase “don’t do, just think,” until I was 19 years old, I feel like it’s the way I lived the first 22 years of my life: analyzing every decision until I worked myself up into anxiety; thinking about stories I wanted to right, but not having the “time” to actually write them; wanting to pursue certain creative endeavors but being too afraid of what would happen if I bombed (would it make me never want to try again? So maybe I should just never try?)
But I don’t know, maybe it’s the inherent transience I feel in Taiwan that gives me this freedom to take more risks, but my mindset has switch. These days, I don’t think. I just do.
Like when two weeks ago I saw there was a Taipei Story Slam competition on August 20th, I thought: I should sign up for that. So I did. I didn’t think: will I have enough time to practice? Is my story compelling? What if I bomb?
To sign up, I was required to submit a pitch about a true story that followed the theme “Summer Lovin’,” so I sent in a pitch (it was loosely about love and even less about summer). I thought: worst is I get rejected for this lame pitch. When the show was in less than five days and I hadn’t heard back from the organizer, I figured it was a rejection by omission type thing. But then I got an email saying it sounded great, so I was in. I hadn’t actually written the story yet, I’d just written the pitch and thought I’d write out the whole thing when I got accepted. So it was Monday night when I heard I would be telling a story on Thursday, and it was not even written. On Tuesday and Wednesday I wrote it and rehearsed and revised based on revisions. Whenever things snagged, I would take them out or change them. I worried that when the time came to tell the story, with no notes, I would run over the 10 minute allotted time frame or forget parts, causing me to bomb so hard.
As I practiced, I recalled giving a presentation in my sophomore year Marine Biology class. Having been good at presentations in high school, I thought it would be no big deal to present my group’s paper to the class. But little sleep and even less preparation led to me epically bombing. I remember looking at the Professor sitting in the back of the classroom during the presentation and slightly shaking her head in disapproval. Would that happen again on Thursday?
I invited my friends, so Thursday after work we headed downtown and had dinner and some beers before heading to the Slam. I was surprised that I didn’t feel nervous really. I mean, I had these pangs of anxiety, but nothing prolonged and sustained. I think it helped that they were there to distract me from too much interior thinking and the dreaded anxiety spiral.
I also somewhat accepted that bombing was a real possibility. Because at times I would try to recall parts of the story, you know, think about a section and practice in my head, but I couldn’t. I literally couldn’t remember how it started without thinking about it for a few seconds. A part of me thought I would step up to the mic and totally forget the structure of the narrative and just bomb, fumbling through the various threads.
I got there and introduced myself to the organizer, Colin. I wasn’t on the set list, but he put me somewhere in the middle.
I began moderately freaking out. The Facebook group had shown about 15 people signed up to come, but slowly more and more people trickled in. I was cool with bombing in front of 15, but 50… My friend Brad mentioned how everyone at this event was here to support people, not be a heckler. Listening to the first story – Amy’s, about her first love affair in NYC – helped me relax.
I was at the bar getting more water when Colin called up the next storyteller, Jonas. He was also at the bar. “So… I’m first,” he said. Uhh… no. Amy just went, I thought. Colin told him he could go later if he wanted, and he said that would be good. “Okay, so our next story teller is Erisa.”
WHAT?!? I thought I’d be in the middle, and now I was going second.
I step into the spotlight. I grab the microphone and start taking it off the stand, while asking “is it OK if I take this off?”
“Hi everyone,” I said to the crowd.
“Hi,” a lukewarm response.
“Okay, so I’m a teacher so usually when I say ‘hi,’ the kids all say, ‘hi Teacher Erisa.’ So, hi everyone!”
“Hi Teacher Erisa!”
“Good,” I say, “Now I’m picturing that you’re all five years old.”
I stood there, looking out over the silent room. How does it start again?
“I was about 10 or 11 years old when…”
I worried that my voice would quiver, because I think that’s a common thing when people are nervous while public speaking. But I could tell that only a few times, when going deeper with my voice, could you detect some non-naturalness to it.
I worried that I would look at people’s faces and blank out, but I realized I chose a few key people that seemed really engaged and would lock eyes with them periodically as an anchor.
I worried that I would mix up sections of the story and get out of order, but I had practiced enough that at the end of each paragraph, I knew what paragraphs came next.
I even remembered a few of the eloquent phrases I’d written that I worried I wouldn’t be able to recall in the stress of the moment.
But the truth is, I didn’t feel stressed at all. From the very beginning, I felt like I had the crowd, that they were interested in what I had to say. And through the whole thing I never felt like I lost anyone. Not saying that I didn’t. Possibly there were a few people in the crowd thinking: this is melodramatic bullshit. But just my perception that the whole room was listening kept me confident.
“Thank you,” I said, and sat down. There was clapping. I was smiling. I was just so happy I didn’t bomb.
There were several more featured storytellers (people that had sent in pitches). Jonas had a story about infatuation at summer camp. A Taiwanese man had one about his first experience with another boy on a bus during camp in NYC. Another man told the story of his fraternal love for his friend who had died of cancer.
Then there was a break before it became open mic (anyone could tell a story that fit the theme and be entered into the contest). I myself had forgotten that it was a contest until that morning. The top two storytellers would be invited to tell a story at the Grand Slam in November. As a competitive individual, of course I wanted to win. But honestly, just signing up, just inviting my friends, just telling the incredibly personal story I told, and just not bombing where enough for me to consider the night a success. And then, during the break, a woman came up to me.
“You’re story was really good. Are you a writer?”
Literally, that’s the best question anyone has every asked me. I mean, I can consider myself a writer, but I feel like are you actually a writer unless people think you’re a writer? Like, people think the things you write are good enough that they want to read, or to listen, them?
“Yeah,” I said.
“I thought it was really good. Like, I couldn’t look away. It really drew me in.”
A few other instances of this happened at that break. And then again at the end of the night as Colin tallied the scores. It just made me feel good. Again, I wanted to win, but what matters more is that people connected with it. That they felt something about it.
There were a lot of good stories, both from the featured storytellers and the storytellers that put their name in a hat for the open mic portion of the show. I was especially surprised by the open mic performances that were probably mostly improved or else I assume they would’ve signed up to be featured storytellers.
Really the only thing I regretted, seeing as how the story was about my Dad, was not mentioning that it was my Dad’s birthday.
Colin came back with the winners. I could feel in the aether that I got second place. And so when he said my name, it was no surprise to me. I hopped up to the mic, not sure if he expected me to say something, but I took this opportunity anyway.
“Thanks!” I said. “I just wanted to say real quick, today is my Dad’s birthday, so thank you!”
There. Now I regretted nothing.
I felt really good. Several other people came up to me and said congratulations. “You’ve really got something there,” one man from my writing group said. Another woman came over and asked if I wrote, saying the story was really well done. Two men – other storytellers from the night – even hugged me, which was cool. I gave out my blog address and thought maybe I should get, like, a business card. Or maybe that’s too much. Maybe I should make DIY business cards (I literally just thought of this while writing this blog post)…
I thanked Colin for organizing the night. “Are you sure you haven’t been here before?”
“Nope. Must’ve been another black girl with short hair,” I laughed.
“No,” he laughed too, but corrected what he had meant to say: “You’ve never done storytelling before.”
No. Beyond two open mic nights and a roast, I’d never done anything like this.
“Because you really had a presence,” he said.
I think it probably has to do with being a teacher. The kids totally do not want to listen to you. They want to play with their erasers. So you have to find ways to make what you’re saying sound interesting. And my teaching is all adlibbing. Obviously, I don’t practice what I’m going to say before I say it; I just have the general idea. So in a way, this was maybe even easier than teaching…
So now I add: “tell a story at a live storytelling competition,” to my list of accomplishments while in Taiwan.
The text of my story is copied below.
I remember being 10 or 11, and my Dad picking me up from soccer practice. This was rare because he was a trauma surgeon, and thus busy with unreliable hours. I got into his Ford Taurus and he handed me a water bottle. I was parched from the summer heat and badly wanted to drink some ice cold water. I sucked it in and tasted disgustingly sweet water. It was ice cold Sprite. He smiled, seeing my reaction and misreading it as positive, and I smiled back because I loved him and I wanted him to be happy.
A little over 10 years later we’re back in the car together, driving across the country. I’m about to start my final year of college.
This is the first time I’ve ever been alone with my Dad for an extended period of time. So I ask him to tell me the story of his life – everything he can remember – because when you’re 67 years old, anything you remember is going to be significant.
Everything up until when he met my Mother. They had recently separated after more than 35 years of an unhappy, abusive relationship. I didn’t care to hear about how they met, or how they dated, because all of those moments were tinged with the horrible hindsight of what things would become. And every time my Dad thought of my mother, his hand would tremor, what would later be diagnosed as an early sign of Parkinson’s.
He told me stories of his childhood in Nigeria, earning a full-ride to Colby College in Maine, almost getting shot in New York City.
Most of these stories I’d heard before. But a few were new. Particularly the ones about women. I figured this was because if Mom had heard him talking about relationships with other women, she would’ve gotten jealous and started a fight.
“I proposed to one woman before Mom,” he said, like it was no big deal.
Immediately my mind was spinning with the possibilities. Who was she?
Peggy was the daughter of one of the deans at Colby College. As a foreign student, my Dad would spend holidays with friends and benevolent college administrators. She was an athlete, like him. She was friendly and kind and smart. Immediately, I pictured her as the antithesis of my Mother.
I thought: Why did she say “no?”
“What happened?” I said.
“I wrote her parents a letter asking if I could marry her.”
I cringed at the patriarchal nature of this proposal.
“I went to her house when I didn’t heard anything.”
“She came to the door crying and said: ‘Frank, why didn’t you just ask me? Why did you write them a letter?’”
It was one thing to be rejected by a woman who just didn’t like you that way. It was another thing to be rejected by a racist society that couldn’t sanction a white woman marrying a black man…
That night, as my Dad snored in our motel room, I lay awake thinking about the alternate reality where he had somehow married Peggy. The life they could’ve had. The children they could’ve had. Active. Smart. Well-adjusted. Free from decades of emotional instability.
I wouldn’t exist, sure, but maybe someone better would be in my place.
The next day, I was still thinking about Peggy. I told my Dad this.
“You can’t think that way. You can’t think ‘what if?’,” he said.
Okay, so I switched, from thinking “what if?” about the past, to thinking “what if?” about the future. Maybe now, free from my Mom, Dad could see Peggy again. Not in a romantic way. Just as friends. It might make him happy.
I Googled her.
And the first hit that came up was her obituary.
A lump burrowed in my throat as I read it aloud.
Tears welled in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks.
“Why are you crying?”
“It’s just so sad.”
My sadness turned to anger at how dumb my Dad was.
He had a vision of what a good man should be. His intention was to make people happy, but he was bad at reading people and situations. This could be about small things, like the Sprite in my water bottle. Or big things, like “how to ask a woman to marry you?” Or thinking he could make my mother happy by twisting himself into every shape she asked of him.
“What if I do this? What if I do this? What if I do this? She’ll be happy. She has to.”
But she never was. And as a result, we all rarely were.
Growing up in the family I did, I realized I had to learn from my parents mistakes. I had to get something positive from all the pain.
So if my Dad told me: “don’t live in the ‘what ifs’ of the past” he showed me “don’t live in the ‘what ifs’ of the future.” Don’t let the possibility of future happiness cloud present pain. Don’t think things outside your control will get better. Make the things within your control better. NOW.
My Dad made the wrong choice, staying in an abusing relationship for as long as he did. I know, if I’m ever in that situation, I’ll choose right.