How I Spent My Summer Vacation
The panel on Personal Storytelling went on for two hours. I arrived with my satchel of laptop and no expectations, knowing only that I would need to introduce myself for 10 minutes and wondering why the hell I was on the panel in the first place. The answer to that question depends on one’s definition of Personal Storytelling.
Web98 East was not Web98 West, nor did I expect it to be. In San Francisco, there was a feeling of community and home because about half (over half?) of the participants lived there and so gatherings often took place in people’s homes, not in restaurants and bars, and the cooking was often done over the stoves and barbecues of the hosts rather than bought and paid for and set out on silver trays near the big screen showing the Red Sox game. And even though there were many people attending who live in the Boston Area, very few live in Boston and although the T is certainly a handy conveyance, it still takes an hour to go from Cambridge’s Red Line train to Newton’s Green Line train and vice versa. Boston, like San Francisco, is a diverse and technically adapted community sitting on a bay and surrounded by bedroom communities that stretch halfway across the state of Massachusetts, south to Providence and north to New Hampshire and Maine. People who can afford to live in Boston usually do not attend conferences. They don’t need to learn anything or share information since they’ve basically “made it.” How else to explain the capability of affording a wood-floored, 700 square-foot condo on Newbury Street for $2,500 a month?
I, however, have not “made it.” Those who visited my palatial estate in Auburndale, complete with decades-old aqua hued carpeting, a ceiling separating from itself in the living room and a refrigerator that announces that it has satisfactorily reached its optimum coolness by groaning like some prehistoric beast before snapping like a dragon’s tail, those people can attest that the lap of luxury has slipped by me somewhere and I sit, rather, on used furniture. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m doing better than a lot of peopleeven though in this line of work it never pays to ask “how much are you making?” and “how old are you, now?” at the same time unless one is prepared to feel extremely depressed for the next three days. Especially when ‘one’ is ‘me.’
Still, I end up getting invited to conferences now, mostly because Derek Powazek suggested my name to a couple of organizers and I guess it ain’t no big shakes anymore to be a guest speaker, even when you consider that most of these people (or, more accurately, their employers) paid close to two grand to sit in front of me as I ramble on incessantly about Standards, Copyright, Design Methodology and Personal Storytelling. I am often ill-prepared for these presentations, believing I’ll be gifted with an epiphany just prior to clipping on the mic and then be able to dazzle and bewitch the gathered faithful with my vision of World Domination via the Internet.
Oh, I should also point out that although those people paid close to two grand to attend, I have conversely never been paid anything to present. Which, I suppose, says something about the caliber of my presentation skills, but we won’t go there, will we?
Just Sit Right Back And You’ll Hear A Tale
I have never felt completely comfortable around Justin Hall. I have never actually met Justin Hall, either. Most (all) of my preconceptions of who Justin is come from his Web site(s), and having met him in person I can say that I like him a lot more than I thought I would because he is perhaps the most genuine person you will ever meet. There is absolutely nothing fake or hidden in his personality, or if there is he’s coated it under a deluge of ideas and conversation so you can’t find it. I can’t find it. He’s only Justin, but he’s 1000% Justin. He’s the most turbo-charged, undiluted, a million miles a minute person I’ve ever encountered. Bottle this guy and you’ll end up with liquid lightning. I am still sort of… I guess “afraid” of Justin. I am the plate of cheese in the corner and he’s a guy in the center of the room spinning around like a dervish holding several sharp cleavers and frothing at the mouth. Unlike The Carl, whom I can quietly observe being The Carl, Justin is more of a forced experience. The Carl is like watching an infomercial on an empty stomach. Sometimes your brow pinches, you can’t believe what you’re seeing and you just sit there, sucked in (pardon the pun). Justin is like being strapped down to watch “Faces of Death” after eating a big meal. Anything could happen.
Justin and Derek are both very much enamored of possibility. I sometimes upset Derek when he discovers my doubt and sarcasm are not merely acts or fronts but reflections of the real me. I really am that pessimistic. Derek clings to hope, he holds his passions close and nurtures them, feeds them, keeps them alive and breathing. In my life, my credo is “there is what I hope, and there is what I believe, and never the twain shall meet.” I may hope that someday everyone will get along, that we all will love each other, discover the beauty and the joy of each other, discover that we are all lonely, all searching, all in confusion and that all we have, really, is each other. But I believe that we will go on fighting each other over insane holy wars or arid tracts of land, that we will steal from each other, cheat each other, react in violent and petty ways, use our weaknesses against each other and ultimately defeat ourselves because we are also insecure, ignorant and greedy. Confident in the ultimate dignity of mankind, I am not.
But that’s why you love me.
I wondered, actually, why I was even on the panel since I don’t think I’m a storyteller in the sense that the others are. I mean, this thing you’re reading now is pretty indicative of what I usually produce, and it’s what I would term “commentary.” I comment on things, I rarely tell a cohesive tale from one end to the other, but who was I to argue. Getting on the panel meant I didn’t have to pay admission for the conference, plus it was a panel that included people who enjoy talking a lot more than I generally do, so if I was worried about looking like an idiot and mouthing some nonsense, all I’d have to do is shut up and look at someone else for their comments and go back to doodling stick figures plunging off cliffs in burning cars.
I have some issues. I’m working them out.
The Rest Of The Story
You know who can talk, that Justin can talk. A lot. And he hardly ever goes “uh.” I mean, there are no vocal pauses at all. Stream of consciousness dialogue. One thing leads to another and it all comes out his mouth. If you can follow the thread of it, it’s pretty interesting here and there. And then there was Adam, who answered every question with a story, so that was appropriate for the forum. Then there was me, and I don’t tend to listen when I’m talking. That was I can deny saying things or claim no memory of them. Maggy was pretty quiet, too, but she’d just been at the Interactive Storytelling Festival where she’d eloped, so maybe her brain was in backup and not all the files were there. Derek was the moderator so he moderated. Meaning he made the rest of us talk.
Personal Storytelling gets a bad rap, I think. In fact, someone in the back of the room raised the point that some of the PS going on is, well, boring. Or poorly written. Or both. And Justin and Derek heartily disagreed, saying that every story has a right to be told, and every person has a right to tell it, even to tell it badly. Because, as Justin pointed out, it’s a record of a life event and someday that life will be over. So maybe the kids will be glad to read anything that their Dad said, I know I would. Because it’s not only a record of events, but also of the way a person thinks and how they relate to others.
When you write, you’re usually trying your best. Some people claim they can’t write, and others say they hate itI assume because they think they stink at it. If you’re good at something (or at least think you are) then you enjoy doing it. So it follows that the reverse is likely true as well.
Maybe people aren’t taught how to write. Or they don’t know that the details are important, or that it’s also important to allow the listener to fill in the blanks, to not tell the whole story and describe every detail so the imagination takes hold and starts painting the movie in their mind with the details they’re personally familiar with. Sense memories are important. What things smelled like, was the air warm on your skin or thick with humidity. Those things set an instant tone and….
But I digress.
The point is that there are lots of stories to tell and there is someone (Derek) who wants to hear them. And the Web provides the perfect venue since we still own it. We can still mount what we want (for a small additional fee if that includes material unsuitable for a general audience, it appearsalthough if GeoCities were smart they’d start a Red_Light district and allow all those amateur porn stars out there to set up free pages and let the real revenue start pouring in) and with luck, perseverence and some lucky search engine hits, people will find it.
What I came away from the panel with, speaking personally, was the knowledge that people will always prefer to take pictures of and interview Maggy before me because she’s a lot prettier, and also a greater respect and understanding of the passion that some feel about expressing themselves. See, I’m just here to show off. I don’t have many stories to tell, I didn’t live a childhood of pain and torment (muchbecause, let’s face it, who didn’t suffer as a child?), and I value my privacy. I also don’t believe, contrary to some, that I have any right to expose others unless they give me leave to do so. I’ve seen too many people get hurt or angry about being mentioned in stories, because there is no such thing as truth. It’s all perception. How I remember something is told from my point of view and probably won’t reflect everything is a pure, unfiltered light. It just can’t. Even TV lies to you.
Nothing you see is the absolute truth. It’s the author’s job to tell a story and it’s the audience’s job to understand that a story is all it is. Good stories teach and manage to be personal. They touch you somewhere. Whether that’s the head, the heart or the groin is up to you.
Me, I’ll just continue in my meandering, (parenthetical)hyphenated manner to vent and spew and carry on, because I can. Truthfully? I think I’d do this whether anyone was listening or not. But why do I keep doing it?
Because you’re there.
October 11, 1998