Every one has a story. I was reminded of this a couple years ago when I opened up my e-mail and saw a message from one of my favorite professors, a man I deeply respect for his authenticity. He opened the e-mail with a writer must know things and challenged us to consider what we know from what we have read and what we have done. He suggested creating an inventory, a detailed list, a mental note, something. At first, it seemed a bit like the typical brainstorming exercise. But then I read his list. Short in length, weighted with emotion, his list mentioned simple things –
- slept on the grass of Central park
- ate a steak in Chicago
- bought a mum for a girl in high school
His list mentioned heavy things –
- sat in typing class and listened to the announcement that Kennedy had been shot
- stood in formation on the grinder in the early morning darkness during boot camp
- walked across the University of Maryland campus while it was being occupied with armed soldiers
His list mentioned all of these moments that belonged to him alone until he shared them.
Isn’t this the life of an artist? Virginia Woolf speaks of the writer as someone who is free to think and feel and do. Writers typically don’t mind the status quo, but we notice the importance of moments. We know that although it seems silly, we can’t help but watch the young boy falling asleep in the pew in front of us, or the man stopping cold in his tracks when high heels crash against the concrete floor of a garage, or the way the sun splits the morning sky in a vibrant show of color.
We notice these things. Most importantly, we remember these things.
I’ve always wondered why. I think I am beginning to understand—people need their story told.
At the end of his e-mail, he told us to take part in the inventory. People immediately began sending him their lists. Within two hours I received about three more e-mails from him of other lists, moments in time that were now shared. Some brought back tears; some brought back laughter; a few brought back pain. Within a few days I received another e-mail encouraging us to send more—to declare ourselves—to speak because someone is bound to listen.
I’m still not sure exactly why this has impacted me so much, outside of the simple realization that these moments are meant to be spectacular. We never know when what we do could change a life. At least, we never know if we never share our story.
- ridden bareback in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho with my great grandfather
- Fallen in love with the scent of Haiti - a mix of burnt marshmellows and freshly cut grass
- Sang in front of my nana and papa's congregation when I was little, a mixture of about ten white-haired members, mostly relatives.
- Sang in front of my home church, a congregation of about 1,000.
- Watched the towers fall in my dorm room of OBU, right before my first New Testament exam of the semester. I failed.
- went stargazing in the bed of a truck in the middle of a baseball field, and actually looked at stars
- went searching to crash a party on Frat Row in Norman, only to find no one home because of a game
- walked across town in College Station singing at the top of my lungs and dancing with friends
- heard my first drive-by when I was in middle school
- Experienced the death of a close friend at 21
- cried over someone who didn’t deserve it
- forgave someone who didn’t deserve it
- Had my first kiss in the back of a band bus at the age of 15
- Stayed up until the wee hours of the morning after hearing about the Columbine shooting my junior year of high school to write a poem that was later published in the SA Express News
- Had a Haitian women wipe tears from my cheeks
- danced with the owner of a karaoke bar in OKC while he serenaded me “Brown Eyed Girl” (I guess hedidn’t see my eyes were blue)
- got into said karaoke bar when I was only 19 because the owner saw my friends and I walking down the sidewalk and invited us in….not the smartest decision but certainly one of the most fun
- read Poisonwood Bible
- made it through my masters
- eaten pig’s feet
- serenaded my husband after two weeks of dating (first time to sing for just one person)
- Was told by a student I was not only a teacher, but a mentor, a mother, a sister and a friend
- Cried in front of students
- felt completely naked when I shared my writing for the first time in college
- spent the week in Wimberley with my family - got sunburnt, an in-grown toenail, and the scar on my chin but met a man from India who changed my life.
- Wrote love on a student's arms
- felt the chill associated with a witch doctor’s property
- bought into the idea of the American Dream
- realized there is so much more than the American Dream
- married Russell
- read Fanny and Zooey
- Met some of the most innovative and revolutionary minds while spending a weekend in San Diego last year
- became a history maker
- learned early on that joy can be found in a sunrise
- created routines with cousins and siblings to Free at Last
- swam in the Caribbean
- was chased by a Havelina in the jungles of Haiti
- watched the sunset over the Pacific
- experienced how something can ruin your life in the best possible way
- watched Dirty Dancing five times in one week
- read Irresistible Revolution
- met my guardian angel
- learned to hear what God is saying to me through nature
- stayed at a hippie commune in Biloxi while doing relief work after Katrina
- baked Santa cookies
- watched Beauty and the Beast
- watched MTV incognito with my teenage uncle (when they actually played videos—I remember Video Killed the Radio Star)
- found my words in Brooke Fraser’s “Albertine”
- learned how to walk like a giant
- met a homeless man named Derrick who lost everything in Hurricane Ike & is now living under a bridge in downtown Ausitn
- found an agent and was dropped by said agent less than four months later when my publisher closed its doors
- met a homeless man with no tongue named Bird whose favorite ice cream is Amy's chocolate.
- read The Things They Carried
- saw Slumdog Millionaire which intensified my desire to a)travel to India and b)adopt
- traveled to Nairobi, Kenya with 10 inner-city kids from Austin to spend time in Kibera—one of the largest slums in the world
- filmed a rap video in Kibera
- learned what jubilee means in 2011
- learned how to abide in 2012
- learned the intricacies [and pain] of risk in 2013
- wrestled through learning how to go soft in 2014
- went wild in 2015
- realized walking through the slum that a smell can get into your blood and never let you go
- art journaled on Sunset Cliffs
- published a book before it was time
- published a book when it was time and noticed the incredible differences
- lost a friend
- watched my father dance with my two sisters at their weddings
- slept on the Capital lawn
- got a job as a business specialist at Apple
- missed meeting Maya Angelou by seconds
- felt the crushing weight of memory
- realized the firm death grip of unbelief
- started seeing a therapist
- published my third novel, Secrets Don't Keep
- read Walking on Water
- read When Women Were Birds
- founded The Story Unfolding
- rebranded as Awake the Bones
- lost two adoption placements
And there’s more. I think this may be the beauty of this exercise, actually. I sent Dr. Peterson my list years ago and have been processing what I wrote and my own additions since then. I would hope that my list only grows larger, as my writer’s mind continues to pay attention to what others can’t see - the lady nervously scratching her neck during an intense conversation, the deaf couple laughing at an intimate joke, the barista greeting a familiar face with a smile and casual conversation.
There are stories to be told. People aching to be heard and seen. Go ahead. I dare you. Think about your own list. Declare yourself, as Brady Peterson says. Someone will listen.