How much of my story matters? — Frequent Questions

Q: How much of my story matters?
A: All of it to you, but maybe not to your readers.

Everyone has a story. One of the most wonderful facets of life is getting to discover the unique or quirky or just plain different stories of our fellow human beings.

But unless you’re writing a memoir, you don’t need to tell your entire story.

Have you ever been at a networking event and had a simple question like “And what you do?” explode into a half-hour disquisition about every single facet of the other person’s job.

You hate those conversations, right? You’d welcome anything that would interrupt them—a colleague rushing over to say hello, a tray of hors d’oeuvres overturning, a small earthquake nearby.

When you’re leveraging your story to introduce yourself to an audience or to make a point about your subject, you don’t need to tell the whole story. Find the part of it that connects specifically to the readers’ interest. And tell that.

my story matters
Danica Roem, photo by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA – 2017.07.26 Protest Trans Military Ban, White House, Washington DC USA 7684, CC BY-SA 2.0

When Danica Roem campaigned for the Virginia House of Delegates, she based her campaign on transportation issues. She and her future constituents spent way too much of their time stuck in traffic; she thought the House of Delegates should address the issue.

Oh—and Danica Roem isn’t just a commuter. She’s also a transgender woman.

In another context—say, if she were writing a memoir—I’m sure Roem could tell a fascinating story about how she discovered her gender identity and what challenges and triumphs she’s encountered along the way. But telling that story in the context of a campaign would siphon attention away from her key campaign issue. Instead, she focused on what her constituents could expect her to do rather than on who she is.

As she said in a recent article in InStyle magazine:

“Even through the Democratic primary, when talking about red-meat issues, I said, ‘Well, Democrats get stuck in traffic too. Transgender people get caught in traffic too.’ LGBT people don’t just get to jump on the back of a unicorn and fly over traffic. We get stuck in it like anybody else.”

After she won the primary, her Republican challenger—whose seat she was trying to win—introduced a “bathroom bill” aimed at transgender people. Roem used that as an opportunity to remind voters about the issue she was campaigning on:

“I came up with the phrase ‘Delegate Marshall’s legislative priorities are more focused on where I go to the bathroom than on how you get to work.'”

Brilliant. She didn’t shy away from her transgender status—I would never advise you to try to bury an essential part of your story. But she reminded voters that she cares about the thing they care about. She focused on the concerns they have in common and her gender identity became just one piece of who she is, not the whole story.

By the way, she won the election.


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William Finn’s Falsettos — Songs for a Sun…er, Friday

William Finn's Falsettos
By Source, Fair use, drawing by Keith Haring

My “Song for a Sunday” arrives two days early this week, thanks to the reminder I received that William Finn’s Falsettos airs on Live from Lincoln Center tonight—October 27th—at 9pm (check your local PBS listings).

It’s not actually a live performance—the show ended its limited run early this year—but it was recorded during a live performance. Which I suppose is close to the same thing.

I’ve embedded the “Sneak Peak!” they put together but I honestly don’t know what you’ll make of it. I’ve seen this material probably four times in total and if I didn’t know the plot, this mishmash of music wouldn’t do much to enlighten me. And not a note of one of the most beautiful ballads William Finn has ever written, “What More Can I Say?” (Alan Cumming does a gorgeous rendition of this on one of his albums).

William Finn’s Falsettos and the power of revision

Falsettos is actually two musicals, written nearly a decade apart—the final two sections of a trilogy about Marvin, a married man with a wife and child who discovers he’s gay.

The show that now comprises the first act of William Finn’s FalsettosMarch of the Falsettos—was the first show I saw in New York as a newly minted theatre major. A show about a gay man! Written by a gay man! Being staged in a real theatre! With a cast album, even. Okay, so what if the man and his lover had a rather pugilistic relationship. They were gay and onstage; the world seemed full of possibilities.

Nine years later, composer William Finn was back with a sequel, Falsettoland, that updated Marvin’s life in the age of AIDS. Marvin and his lover acquired a couple of lesbian friends (lesbians! onstage!). And while the show featured the aforementioned gorgeous ballad and a funny song about baseball, a show about the age of AIDS premiering in the midst of the age of AIDS…well, you’d do well to bring your Kleenex.

With a little judicious trimming, the two separate shows became one—first show, first act; second show, second act.

This 2016 production surprised me; Christian Borle’s Marvin is a bit of a narcissistic a-hole. Actually, more than a bit. Maybe I’d been blinded by the character’s gayness and just didn’t notice that back in the ’80s. Or maybe my tolerance for narcissistic a-holes has declined as I’ve gotten older, like my tolerance for wearing high heels.

It’s also possible they revised the book to make Marvin more of an antihero, though I can’t find any backup for that. While we’re on the subject of revision—since this is one thing I talk to my writers about a lot—please notice that if William Finn had said “Nope. March of the Falsettos is finished. I will not change a word or a note,” then Falsettos would never have existed.

Be open to new possibilities for your work. Try things out; you can always restore your work to the original form. (This is where art made of words has a distinct advantage over art made of things. Once you’ve sawed your painting in half, it’s hard to change your mind.)

Do watch Falsettos if you get a chance (I’ve set my DVR, since it conflicts with the World Series). And bring your Kleenex.


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Identity & discovery — song for a Sunday

identity and discovery in Fun HomeHere’s a public service announcement: the national tour of Fun Home is touching down in Boston later this month. Prepare to laugh, and cry. Some people will cry buckets. I did—both times I saw the show in New York. Because Fun Home is about identity and discovery. And seeing a lesbian discover and claim her identity in a mainstream Broadway musical…well, I never dreamed of that. Not in my lifetime.

Fortunately, Tony Award-winning writers Lisa Kron (book & lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) did dream it. And MacArthur “genius” grant-winner Alison Bechdel lived it—and wrote the graphic memoir the show brings to life. To be clear that’s “graphic” in the sense that it’s what some people might call a “comic book.” And while there are laughs in Fun Home, it’s not anyone’s idea of comic.

So here’s your song for this Sunday, as performed by Tony nominee Sydney Lucas at the 2015 Tony Awards: “Young Alison” beginning to discover her identity. And there’s a lot more where this came from. See the show if you haven’t. It will open your eyes—when they’re not brimming with tears.

How can I help? — Frequent Questions

Q: How can I help?
A: Pick an issue and dive in.

It’s no secret: the challenges our country and our world face seem to be multiplying faster than rabbits. Or, to update that analogy to the 21st century, faster than malware-infected bots.

The only way I know to counter the human malware operating in so many people these days is by making personal connections and broadening people’s frames of reference. By talking, and listening. Educating.

Heather McGhee, the president of Demos, told an interesting story on this Monday’s episode of “Pod Save America.” She was speaking on a C-SPAN show one day last year and a viewer called in with an unexpected question. He was scared of black people, he said. How could he deal with this? McGhee, who is a woman of color, gave him some action items (among them: read history; change your news outlets). He embarked on a project to broaden his own horizons, reached out to McGhee via Twitter to thank her. And they struck up a friendship. Who knows how many minds he will change?

Of course, not every racist is open to a conversation like that. Some need a little more overt direction to change. And that’s one of the things the Southern Poverty Law Center does so well. In its 46-year history, it has fought for equity for people of color, LGBT people, students, you name it.

Help — for the Southern Poverty Law Center & for yourself

helpSo when my colleague Emily Levy said she wanted to put together a fund-raiser for the SPLC, I only had one question: How can I help?

She’s gathered together a group of coaches and consultants to offer VIP Days to their clients and pledge a earmark portion of the proceeds for the SPLC. I’m offering two VIP packages for the cause—with a potential donation of $1,200 to help this vital organization continue its work.

Click here for more information about my VIP Day package.

And check out the other offerings here.

Book your package by September 15th and schedule your VIP Day by October 31st. You’ve been meaning to spruce up your creativity, your business, your life. Now you can get the help you want and benefit an excellent cause.

Any questions?

My racist coworker: a true story

not a picture of my racist coworkerYes, I’m supposed to be on vacation. But I have something to say about Charlottesville, so I’m “reclaiming my time,” in the words of the inimitable Maxine Waters. I have a story you might need to hear, a true story about my racist coworker.

For about six months in 1985, I lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I hadn’t yet discovered my calling as a speechwriter, so I worked at a place that churned out forms for retirement plans. People elsewhere in the building plugged paragraphs into documents; I made small, predetermined adjustments and sent the documents to the printer, then collected the printouts and shuffled them off to the next stage.

The system had been designed for two people to do what I did, but the company had a hard time keeping anyone else in the job. Because the work was too boring? Nope. Because the work was too hard.

So I was thrilled when they finally found someone who could handle it. We’ll call her “Misti”—with an i instead of a y at the end because giving her two i’s allows the Misti of our imagination to dot the first i with a star, maybe, and the second with a heart. That was just the kind of ray of sunshine Misti was: perky and petite, always smiling. If you imagine she’s also white and blonde, you’ve got the picture. A high-school cheerleader straight out of central casting.

Misti proved quite capable at her job, so she stuck around awhile, and I was glad to have someone to chat with. I don’t remember what we were talking about that day, only that her next sentence came completely out of the blue. With all the authority an 18-year-old can muster, she announced: “You know, Elaine, the n*****s are trying to take over the world.”

My racist coworker

I don’t know whether I was more shocked by her statement or by the fact that she’d just used the N-word, right there in the office—with our black colleagues working just a few desks away.

“What…?” It was less a word than a strangled, shocked sound.

“Oh, it’s true,” she replied, in the same chirpy tone she used to describe what she’d brought for lunch. “You always hear them complaining about discrimination. You never hear white folks complaining about discrimination. Do you?”

It’s not easy to render me speechless, but that bit of twisted logic did. Of course, it’s hard to complain about something you never experience. But I didn’t say that. In fact, I don’t think I said anything to Misti. Ever again.

I left town in pretty short order. Hightailed it back to New York, to Brooklyn, where I could imagine that people never thought those kinds of things. Because they certainly never said those kinds of things. Not in polite company. Not around me.

It’s a privilege to walk away

Racism is like that if you’re a white person. It’s a casual remark you can ignore. Change the conversation, leave the room, move out of town and you can believe you’ve left it behind.

I don’t know if I could have changed Misti’s mind back there in Jacksonville in 1985. But I could have given my racist coworker something to think about. I could have introduced her to a different worldview. Instead I left her with her hateful beliefs intact, ready to pass on to any kids she might have in the future. Or, by now, grandkids. That’s three generations of racists I might have prevented. Or maybe not. But the point is I didn’t even try.

White Christmas 

Thirty-something years later: Christmas with my relatives, one of whom started a conversation that veered dangerously close to racism. Did I say something? Reader, I did not. I walked out of the room. I felt guilty about it at the time, but a few weeks later I would feel even worse.

My partner was talking to some black friends of ours, telling them about the experience. I tried to head her off, but she plowed on. I left that room, too. Couldn’t bear to see my black friends’ faces when my partner reached what seemed to her like a triumphant conclusion, “…and Elaine just left the room!”

Later I said, “I wish you hadn’t told them that story.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I said, “if I found out they’d heard someone saying disparaging things about LGBT people and all they did was walk away, I would have ripped them a new one.”

Forgive my salty language, but I feel strongly about people who ignore their responsibility as allies. Of course, I have no standing to criticize. As you now know, I’ve walked away too.

I wasn’t actually in Charlottesville

I left Misti behind when I moved out of Jacksonville. But her illogical argument, her strange racist reading of social interactions—those things pop up everywhere. And they’ll persist and spread until we can educate the people who believe them. And, worse, who act on their beliefs.

So no, I wasn’t part of the angry white mob in Charlottesville last weekend. But who knows how many people have crossed paths with my racist coworker in the 30 years since I declined to talk some sense into her? I stood by as she threw a pebble into a dark and ugly lake; the ripples of her hatred have had a long damn time to expand.

Let one racist continue in their ignorant thinking and that thinking will spread exponentially. But engage in thoughtful conversation with a racist—tell a story, speak about your own experience or the experiences of others—and you have a chance to stop the spread of hate. A slim chance, maybe. But that’s still a chance.

We can’t afford to be silent any more. To paraphrase the Buddhist teaching about planting a tree: The best time to have a conversation about racism is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.

Yes, I’m looking at myself when I say that. And I invite you to look at yourselves, too.


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Cinematic politics, 1987 — from David Sedaris’s diary

The political situation is far too fraught these days. I’ll leave analysis to the professionals (if you’re worried about North Korea, check out this special emergency episode of Tommy Vietor’s Pod Save the World). So I thought it might be fun—fun! not a word you hear in connection with politics these days—to check out a little cinematic politics circa 1987.

Our guide is David Sedaris. Please forgive him for using the term “hermaphrodite”—that was what we called Intersex people back in the day. If you’ve had a classical education you’ll appreciate the word’s deft combination of the deities Hermes and Aphrodite—but today the people in the community prefer Intersex. That term was not in wide use when Sedaris wrote this diary entry, 30 years ago.

Ah, the diary. I should probably mention that Sedaris has published excerpts from 25 years of his diaries under the title Theft by Finding. I’ve only made my way through 1991 so far, but it’s full of quirky observations like this one.

Cinematic politics, Sedaris-style

cinematic politicsAnd so to the passage in question:

January 18, 1987
Chicago

In the mail we received a video guide of new releases. One movie is called Never Too Young to Die. The copy reads, “A vicious hermaphrodite wants to control the country, and only two people stand in his way. [Only two?] The resulting ‘battle of the sexes’ will blow your mind with a heady mixture of powerful heavy-metal music, state-of-the-art weaponry, martial arts, and espionage that makes this exciting action flick a winner.”

Note: that “Only two?” editorial comment is Sedaris’s. Of course. He continues:

“Times have changed when a hermaphrodite wants to control the country and only two people stand in his way. If he were a black or Hispanic hermaphrodite, he’d probably have a harder time of it.”

You’ve probably noticed that both writers—the anonymous copywriter and Sedaris—assign the “hermaphrodite” a male pronoun. That’s probably because the actor playing “Velvet Von Ragner” was himself a man. And not just any man: Gene Simmons of the band Kiss. I’m surprised Sedaris didn’t mention the other star of the movie—John Stamos. Then again, he may have missed the debut that year of Stamos’s sitcom Full House.

But I promised you sexual politics: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say in Sedaris’s adopted homeland, France. Sedaris’s observation that “a black or Hispanic [would] probably have a harder time of it” is a classic example of “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Anyway, as we contemplate the potential destruction of our country if not our world, I thought it might be refreshing to time-travel back to 1987, when the person wreaking the havoc at least had the decency to do it intentionally, with a heavy-metal soundtrack. Stay safe, everyone.


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Multitasking can change the world

Multitasking has a bad reputation these days. As well it should; it’s probably the least efficient way to work. Or to do anything, for that matter. But the right kind of multitasking can change the world.

Take my friend Jan Abernathy. I wrote about her last week. So far we’ve only met in the comments thread of a mutual friend’s Facebook post and in a lively exchange of texts that followed. But I already like her.

I know Jan Abernathy’s multitasking can change the world; indeed, it already has.

You see, Jan works for a small independent school. And like most administrative folks at small independent schools, she wears two hats. In this case, she’s a co-chair of her school’s equity and justice task force. And she also does marketing and communications, which includes editing and publishing the school’s magazine.

It turns out, Jan and I had already met. By email, a few years ago. She remembered my name when our friend introduced us—”But I thought, what are the odds?”

When I sent in my class news for the magazine, it must have stood out. While most graduates write about their children or their career milestones, I wrote about my wedding. To a woman.

I didn’t even think twice about sending the wedding announcement to my high school and college alumnae magazines. But my grammar school….Whenever I see photos of their events it always looks like the Republican convention. (Not the most recent one—the ones before the party lost its collective mind.) You know what I mean: happy, affluent, straight, suburban people sipping Chardonnay.

If they thought the school turned out lesbians, they might spill their wine.

“Got married—finally!”

But I sent in the news anyway:

Got married—finally!—in Dec. 2013. My wife, Dane, works at [Fancy University] so I moved to [Fancy University Town] and am enjoying the perq of auditing classes for free. Still writing speeches for the corporate world (see BennettInk.com) and singing (see ElaineStGeorge.com). Just won a Bistro Award for Outstanding Vocalist.

I expected if they ran it at all, they’d try to slip it in as unobtrusively as possible.

When I saw the return email, I figured they were going to ask me to edit it—”for space,” naturally. Instead they said: Tell us more! Where did you get married? And can you send a photo?

I sent in the the details about the church and the priest and the reception. But a photo? The last thing I ever expected.

The photographer was still a couple of months away from giving us his work, so we didn’t have one of those everyone-lines-up-and-smiles-at-the-wedding pictures. I wrote back that I wouldn’t have anything appropriate in time for their deadline.

The response: We’ll wait.

multitasking can change the worldStill, I understand deadlines. So I sent back the only photo we had at that moment: Just the two of us. Very intimate. Very not suburban heterosexual. I was sure they’d never run it.

They not only ran it, they ran it in a call-out box. My lesbian wedding photo could hardly have been more prominent if they’d put it on the cover.

Eventually my amazement faded and I thought nothing more about it until last week, when Jan Abernathy told me she worked for a small independent school in the town where I had attended a small independent school.

And then she said she remembered my wedding.

I told Jan how much I had appreciated her asking for more details, for a photo. She said she was sure some people were shocked to read about the wedding, but those comments never reached her. And the photo: “I was prepared to fight for that picture,” she texted me. I almost cried. No, I’m lying; I did cry.

Intersectionality and multitasking can change the world

There’s a lot of talk these days about “intersectionality”—that no one is ever just one thing. For instance, I am simultaneously white, lesbian, Christian, an entrepreneur. I can’t really tease out the strands of my personality to present only one at a time. You are many things too, in addition to being one of my readers (for which I am grateful).

Jan Abernathy’s work-intersectionality—what I’ve been calling her “multitasking”—is what got my wedding photo published in that grammar school magazine. The school could have put many people in charge of the publication—at one point long ago, my beloved 4th grade teacher edited it—but they gave the job to the person who also works hard on inclusion issues, someone who gives marginalized people a voice within the school community. And when she opened my email, she saw an opportunity to lift up one kind of voice that doesn’t often get heard in that context. Honestly, I’m still amazed that it happened.

I told Jan that when she asked me for my photo, she made me feel normal. I mean, I don’t go around consciously feeling abnormal, but on two or three occasions I’ve had something happen that showed me what “regular” feels like. And it’s always odd to recognize that “regular” is not my usual state.

As it happened, Jan and I had our text conversation while she was en route to a conference for new heads of independent schools and she told my story, our story, to illustrate the impact that inclusion can have. On a person, on a school. On a community.

I loved that school. When I attended, way back in the late 20th century, it was about as diverse as you’d expect a school in an affluent New Jersey suburb to be. Which is to say not very. I’m glad they had the foresight—and the guts—to hire Jan. And to support her efforts to create visibility for the diverse members of the community, even if it does make some Chardonnay glasses tremble.

But this isn’t just a story about Jan Abernathy. It’s about all of us. Because we can’t be bystanders. If we want a diverse, inclusive culture, we can’t just sit back and let the “inclusion officers” handle it.

So I have some questions for you: Whose voice can you lift up today? Whose story can you tell?

“The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.” — John F. Kennedy


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