Last month I finally got up the nerve to get up in front of actual, non-cat, people and tell a story. I went down to a function called Speak Easy, got up on stage, and told a story about a closet case me stumbling into a donkey show at a cinder-block brothel a few miles outside of Ciudad Acuña, MX in 1991. People seemed to find listening to my Psychosexual Corn Maze™ somewhat amusing. And, really, what more can you ask for?
A day later I was on the phone with my ex-fiancée and part-time muse Lynda. After the requisite convo about politics and cats and the politics of cats, I told her about my experience.
“I like it. It’s an other-directed activity, but it’s still all about me.”
“I don’t think you understand what is meant by ‘other-directed,” said Lynda.
Normally, I concede all matters of semantics to Lynda because she is so much brain-having. However, I think I’m right. Storytelling is too other-directed. For five minutes or so last Thursday I took a break from skating on the Möbius Strip that passes for my psyche and interacted with people in a manner that didn’t involve me standing off to the side with my arms akimbo at them.
[Actually, my arms moved way too much; I need to work on that.]
For the first time since I moved to Columbus, I actually felt like I was doing “something.” I was putting something out into the world instead of reacting to things. I did something concrete, and people did something concrete in return.
Whenever I’m feeling all cranky and Gen-X, I imagine snarky listicles in my head on the subject of why popular music sucks now. (And how Millennials are ruining it, natch.) Number one reason is always the fact that pop music now seems to consist of notes that never existed out in the wild, in the actual air, as vibrations. It goes from machine to machine. It never breathes.
It’s been the same with my writing ever since I moved to Columbus. When I was in Brooklyn, it was easy to find writing workshops full of like-minded women interested in Creative Non-Fiction. (More often than not, I would be the sole male. I hope I represented properly. So many stories about doulas!) I would work on a story up until the time I would have to print out copies. It’s that finalizing of output that was so satisfying. It’s done. Do what you will with it, world. But lately, my wordsmithing has only existed in some Tron-ish (yet sadly Jeff Bridges-free) hellscape. It is never more than ones and zeros battling against all the other ones and zeros. My printer broke over a year ago. I haven’t needed it. There’s been no opportunity to print something out and feel that sense of pride that comes with using a stapler for a concrete purpose. I am stapling things for other peoples’ convenience. I am part of a society! All my output recently has gone up on the blog to wait and wait and wait for little red notification numbers to appear. Or I enroll in online workshops, and all that changes is that the little numbers sometimes are blue or green.
It took me a long while to get up the nerve to try the storytelling thing. It’s not stage-fright. I actually have no problem with getting up in front of people and opening my mouth. I’ve acted before, done improv, even some stand-up. I’ve taught college students. There’s been retail. Nothing like a nice fourth wall. Put me in a structured setting where the roles are defined and I’ll sing. (I won’t actually sing. I suuuuuck at singing. It’s important to know one’s limits.) Teacher/student. Dillard’s associate/creepy guy who needs his inseam measured to get jeans. Storyteller/audience. I’m good, thank you.
However, I’ve never had a comfy time with free-range conversation. I am certain that the only reason people engage me in small talk is to humiliate me:
What do you do?
I have become very isolated in Columbus because I fold under the withering onslaught of “What do you do?” I have no good answer to this. Thanks to the “interesting” way my brain likes to interpret most human interaction as an existential threat, I’ve never really cottoned to a recognizable career path.
What do you do?
I disappoint. Professionally.
Self-deprecating snark is not an effective socialization skill. But sometimes it’s all you have. I would say it beats shame, but that’s like saying a pugilist’s right cross is more effective than a boxer’s uppercut. Either way, you’re getting punched in the face.
So you close down. It’s gets exhausting dealing with the linear trajectory of most small talk when your brain is decidedly non-linear.
[Earlier this year, at a homosexual dancing event, a young man with facial hair AND nerd glasses shimmied up to me. He was wearing a hooded vest made of some sort of white mesh. The hood was up. Smile. Respond to smile with mouth. Eye contact. Look at nose because it’s close enough to the eyes that people tend not to notice. “So, daddy, what do you do?” “You look like a futuristic bee-keeper.” And he shimmied away.]
My therapist likes to tell me I’m under-stimulated. Under-stimulation is the devil’s DMV. I need to seek out the non-linear. Instead of “What do you do?” I need “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra much?” [It’s a cromulent Star Trek reference. Deal.]
Stimulation means actually doing something. So, after a year of excuses, I rushed out to Speak Easy.
At the Speak Easy, before I even told my story, I was waiting in line for the restroom. On the wall near the queue was a black velvet painting of a wonderfully plush woman in a loving post-coital cuddle with a swan. And to my delight, I got into spontaneous banter with the woman in line behind me about the finer points of the myth of the Leda and the Swan and whether Leda would cuddle the swan. I said it might be a different swan,a nd that’s how Zeus knew Leda had a thing for waterfowl. Greek myth riffs are way better than “What do you do?”
[What do you do? Oh, thanks for asking. I’m trying to disrupt the whole transforming into a rapey swan UX.]
This interaction put me in the right headspace to tell my story. I knew the audience would understand me, could follow my shaky relationship to the conventions of linear storytelling. [Don’t worry… there was a beginning, middle, and an end. There was a hero’s journey.]
When I was finished, I didn’t have to wait for little red push notifications. There was immediate applause and laughter, not to mention the occasional AWWWW.
I drove somewhere, did something, and people did something back to me. And I did things in response to the things they did. I am stapling things for peoples’ convenience. I am part of a society!
Then last week, I returned to Speak Easy. The subject was Roommates. I’ve lived with people. A long time ago. I could handle this. I made non-linear small talk. I told another story from the Psychosexual Corn Maze™ I managed to squeeze four roommates into the telling. I need to edit. There were positive responses which I believe were free from ulterior motives.
I will be back again.
What do you do?
I’ve been trying my hand at storytelling. It’s something that I’m actually doing.