when developing your personal narrative makes you feel like a fraud
So how did you get to where you are today?
Well, I completed a series of various educational pursuits to a satisfactory standard, which then enabled me to become relatively employable. I got a few jobs, then I got this Global Health Corps fellowship, and I got a plane ticket and a visa, and voila. And I promise that this story is heaps more exciting when you have Jay Z’s and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” playing in the background.
Well um, no. I mean… What motivates you to do what you do?
Mum told me once that if I want to buy stuff I need to make money, so…
Funny. But seriously. What happened in your life that steered you in this direction?
Um, I realized that I like following the news, and social justice work basically lets me do it for a living. I can claim my New York Times subscription back at tax time!
Great… So uh, no personal trauma?
Charmed middle-class life, right ‘ere. Hence the New York Times subscription.
Right, this isn’t working. Okay, what makes you a change maker in the global health field? What makes you a social justice bad ass? Why are you a voice of the new generation fighting poverty, inequality and corruption?
Uh, I don’t really think I’m any of those things.
Then what the hell is your personal narrative going to look like?
Uh, hi, my name’s Laura and I am neither interesting or remarkable. I can’t explain why I do the work I do, and I can’t tell you a compelling personal story that can provide you with an endearing or personable insight into what makes me tick. The fact of the matter is, I still have no idea how the hell I got into this Global Health Corps fellowship when everyone in this program are so damn impressive, and I’ve spent the last 10 months successfully hiding the fact that I’m a fraud from all of you. But I guess now with this personal narrative thing y’all are making me do, my cover’s blown.
…Guys, unless the Q3 retreat works a fucking miracle on me, this end of year retreat in Tanzania is gonna be real awkward.
This is probably a really dumb blog to write two days out from a retreat where I am stuck in a corn field in the middle of rural Massachusetts with almost the whole GHC team and my fellow cohort, but here goes: this personal narrative thing GHC is trying to do? It really ain’t my cup of tea.
For the readers out there who haven’t had a taste of the sweet, sweet GHC kool-aid — basically the second half of this fellowship year is preparing us for the big wide world, and this includes developing a personal narrative that we can relay onto people when we are trying to explain why we do what we do. It’s supposed to be authentic, compelling and impactful. It’s supposed to incur a reaction. It’s kind of like an elevator pitch, but more personal. It’s not about our previous work experience, our professional or academic achievement, or even Global Health Corps [all of which are real, tangible things with timelines and proof], it’s about us. Just us. We have five minutes at our end of year retreat, to get up in front of 130+ other fellows, and talk about us.
The thing is, I have nothing to say.
Oh god, I can hear you all. “Laura with nothing to say? Good joke.” But I’m not joking. I’m the first to admit that I am a ranty-pants machine. Tell me to talk about maternal health in Ethiopia, or violence against women in the U.S., or illegal refugee incarceration in Australia, or sexism in the workplace, or juvenile gangs in South Africa, and I can assure you — I’ll give you those five minutes and then some. But me? Talk about me? No.
And here’s why: because I am surrounded daily by stories who are actually worth their five minutes and then some. I’m the luckiest girl in the country; the stories I’ve heard of determination, hard work and personal triumph from the people I’m so fortunate to consider colleagues and friends — they’re remarkable. Those people, themselves, are remarkable. They need their five minutes. And other people need to hear those five minutes. Please, take my five minutes too, because frankly you deserve all the time in the world.
But I have a mandate. Develop and present a personal narrative to my peers. So what’s a girl to do? I mean, I work in communications, so I know how to spin some bullshit that can eventually become pretty compelling if I chip away at it enough. At mid-year retreat we were handed a sheet of paper that told us to think of a difficult time in our lives, and work from there. Maybe I just gotta make up something, or exaggerate like a mofo. Like, I could talk about the time a mentally ill man stuck his hand up my dress on the subway, but let’s be real, I just wasn’t that traumatized. Traumatized enough to remember the event and shudder? Yes. Traumatized enough to pursue a career in ending violence against women? Well… No. I was already pursuing a career in ending violence against women by this point, anyway. But I don’t know how to tell you why.
And this is what gets to me: why do I have to know how to tell you why? Why do I have to tell you why I’m personally invested in freeing refugees from Nauru and Manus Island? Why can’t I just tell you ‘because I want to’. Why does ‘because I want to’ piss so many people off? Why is justification necessary for my career choices to be valid to you? Why do I need a reason to work in international human rights law? Why can’t I just do it, and that be enough for you? Why do I have endure the stress of covering my ass through multiple personal narrative brainstorming sessions or whatever they are, and then endure the crippling anxiety of producing some kind of bullshit that sounds just real enough to compel 130 of my peers in two and a half months time? Why can’t “I do this work because I think it’s the right thing to do” be enough?
Why do I owe you my story?
Why can’t I just be really, wholly, happily, authentically simple?
In being encouraged to find personal trauma and build a story of triumph from hardship, these basic but nevertheless human feelings I harbor towards my career — the idea of chugging along happily for the greater good — become irrelevant. Only when I have a compelling narrative, do I become valid. But I don’t have one, and so I end up feeling like more of a fraud than I already am. You’ve told a comms girl to create an authentic personal narrative, and in the interest of being authentic, she finds that she can’t produce one. Talk about an identity crisis.
I’ve spent my professional life working in the human rights field as a voice for people who have been rendered voiceless or denied a platform to speak. The most authentic personal narrative I could possibly produce is shutting up for five damn minutes so we can all listen to someone else — someone with a story — talk.
Wait hold on do you reckon I could use this?