(Trigger warning: shame, drug/alcohol use.)
There are so many things in my life that I used to be ashamed of. I have made mistakes bigger than I ever imagined I would or even could, and I have been through unforeseeable experiences that I wouldn’t wish upon anybody. I am very proud of the person I am now, but some of the stops on the road that got me here… yikes, my friends. Oh my yikes. At times, I’ve been so ashamed by these moments and memories that I’ve elected not to discuss them, analyze them, or even think about them, none of which resolved my sense of mortification and—in some cases—self-loathing. Fortunately, something has recently come into my life to assist with all of this heavy stuff!
Here in LA, consider the storytelling scene a cousin to stand-up comedy. (And, because societies have forever used storytelling to keep a record of their histories, consider it the older cousin.) Los Angeles is a stand-up hub, but storytelling is close behind and gaining speed. With no intentions of ever performing, I was going about my ho-hum existence as waitress-by-day-writer-by-night when a friend of a friend called, more or less out of the blue; she was starting a new storytelling show, and wondered if I would like to participate one night. I decided I did. It went well. She asked if I would like to co-host a refined version of the show with her, attached as a producer and regular performer. I decided I did, and Happy Hour Story Experiment was born.
Before this, my relationship to storytelling revolved around the kitchen table, or the corner of a party, or behind the safety of my writing desk. Everything is different on stage at the Hollywood Bar & Grill. Strangers are there, looking at me! Sure, sometimes they laugh when I expect them to, but other times they just stare. And their silence can be deafening. Sometimes they’re not listening at all because they’re jonesing for another (weirdly watery) martini. And new people are constantly walking in off the street, unaware that there’s a show going on, which is particularly distracting when you’re carefully holding back tears over the loss of a sibling.
The first few weeks, I only read pieces from my old blogs, but they were mostly trivial tales about dating and single momhood. Then I dropped the reading format and started to explore bigger, more dramatic events in my life. I quickly discovered that that this combination—more personal stories with a more physical, freewheeling, anything-can-happen performance style—helped me examine and sort of re-contextualize those events. By actively molding my own memories for an audience, I found that I was creating small pieces of self-mythology; fairy tales, with insightful little morality nuggets. It became an exciting and a comforting way for me to access and analyze my own life, and the shame I carried with me about certain embarrassing choices and events began to dissipate.
Here’s an example, albeit what I consider a slightly more light-hearted one:(WARNING: possibly NSFW on account of language and…grossness?)
(Video description: I am on stage with a microphone describing a very bad night that taught me a lot about my willingness to ask for help. QUESTION: as a guest blogger, am I supposed to transcribe the entire video here for the hearing impaired? How much detail is expected? Please advise. Thanks.)
My own performances notwithstanding, I have become incredibly proud and grateful to be a part of the HHSE. Time and time again, people thank us for creating a safe space to try out new material, to talk about personal experiences, to try out something they’ve otherwise been afraid of for fear of embarrassment. In addition—and I assume it’s because the show is hosted by two females (myself and comedian Melinda Hill)—I am so thrilled by the fact that our performers every week are mostly women coming from all walks of life. Finding a supportive, communal place for female creativity can be extremely difficult, and to be a key part of one feels like a dream come true.
Of course, everyone is allowed to participate, and sometimes the most effective storytellers are not the ones I’m expecting. These are my favorites. One night, an older man wearing drawstring sweatpants tucked into his socks stepped onto the stage. He told a silly story about a recent trip to the petting zoo where he patted a woman’s head because her hair was so frizzy he mistook it for an animal. The man laughed his way through the end of this story, delighted all over again by this hilarious thing that had happened to him. He came alone to our show, and though I have no idea how he heard about us or where he went when he left, I know for sure I’ll never forget him or his little story. He was so sweet I almost wanted to cry. Later the same night, when a woman told us about an epiphany regarding her husband’s Jewish heritage and his parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, I did cry.
Storytelling has the capacity to bring everyone together in celebration of the weird, funny, humiliating, scary, and heartbreaking stories that make up our lives. For me, it has been a key to unlocking my own history, and given me the confidence to attempt new, even more intimidating challenges (hello, Feministe!). The more secure I am with myself, the better a role model I am for my daughter, and the more comfortable I am thinking about the hard conversations that lie ahead for the two of us.
Have you ever turned embarrassing stories or shameful truths into helpful myths of your own? How do you all celebrate community and creative expression? I’d love to know how else I might be able to chase this feeling!