I Believe That You Are Fascinating
It is hard to make the case that most people are fascinating without demonstrating the point with their stories. But because my certainty in this belief was acquired in the context of teaching a class on how to earn a living as a writer, I know it is less my place than normal to tell anyone’s stories. The purpose of the class is to help people navigate to friendly, generous spaces where they could tell their stories themselves, not so I could syphon the narratives out like verbal plasma that I could then hawk myself.
I am writing this blog because two sentiments have dominated the questions I receive from my students: “I don’t even know if the story is that interesting” and “How do I make anyone care about insignificant me?” I want to address it because these sentiments were not conjured from some psychosomatic inadequacy, they were nurtured by a culture that repeatedly tells people they are not interesting, that their stories aren’t worthwhile, that their voices are little more than another layer of digital noise. In the words of Heather Havrilesky, “The world has told you lies about how small you are.”
In the last six weeks, I’ve taught 52 students in an online class held via Skype several nights per week then had 15 or 30 minute one-on-one sessions with each of them wherein they told me what they’re hoping to get out of the class and of writing more generally. These students tell me breathtaking, heart-breaking, gut-busting stories they want to find homes for. When their descriptions of the story’s textures, arcs, and jokes is over, the exuberance rushes out of their faces, their shoulders slump, and they say, “But who wants to read that, you know?” And I emphatically tell them I want to read those stories not just because I want to see the class succeed so they get their money’s worth but also because I think this hard world would be a softer place with those stories in it.
I have been irked for several months because of a Call For Submissions I read that said, “Personal Histories? I don’t know, are you interesting? Most people aren’t.” I have no quarrel with the editorial direction any editor chooses unless it is pivoting to video and firing brilliant people so if the editor doesn’t want to encourage personal stories, they can go with God and whatnot. But it troubles me that this idea has currency in so many media and literary circles, this idea that people aren’t interesting. Perhaps it is a function of my own loneliness that I am so sentimental on this point, but I have welcomed 52 people into my quiet house in the woods via a MacBook Air screen in the past six weeks and I can say without hesitation that they were all fascinating in one way or another. They greeted me from places in the country I’ve never seen outside of an airplane. They shared their hopes, their histories, and their ideas. They told me stories I was made more whole for hearing.
And even if they weren’t interesting, you don’t need to be an interesting person to tell an interesting story about something that happened to you. Second, it is more often the mundane experience well-told that connects with an audience. In a different class I taught, I assigned my students the Ariel Levy story, “Thanksgiving In Mongolia.” It is a deeply sad story beautifully told about Levy taking a trip to Mongolia and miscarrying in her hotel room. The story is compelling because of the tenderness with which the story of the miscarriage, a devastatingly common experience, is told. Levy isn’t most compelling when she is expertly describing her journey in Mongolia. Levy is most compelling when she is a woman, suddenly alone and bleeding in a bathroom.
I have pushed against the tide of my own overwhelming sensitivity for a long time. I have recently been afraid that my earnestness will be perceived as opportunistic, capitalizing on a trend championing empathy and feeling. It is partially true. I am taking advantage of a cultural moment which permits me to reveal more of my giddy interest in people than I’ve previously felt able to. There is more than enough ambivalence about others to go around, I will gladly overcompensate by thinking you all hung the moon and embarrassing the shit out of you if I get the chance to tell you so.