Thursday, May 11, 2017

Lightening Up

I was always a serious person. You know, one of those people who always looks lost in thought and forgets to smile on cue. When I was younger, people I didn't know, usually men, used to pass me on the street and admonish me to smile. I'd always be a bit surprised, shocked out of my reverie. I wasn't unhappy, I just wasn't focused outward. I wondered why it would matter to them. When you get older, unless you are a woman running for President, they pretty much stop telling you to smile. It is one of the many advantages to getting older.

Early in my career I was often interviewed on the news. My mother would watch and tell me to smile. Now, mothers can do that. With them it comes from a good place. They genuinely think our smiles are lovely. I replied to her, "I can smile or I can speak intelligently. Which do you want?" Remembering to smile took brain cells I needed to deploy elsewhere under pressure.

My sister is the funny one in my family. She is the youngest and it seems to me that the youngest often has the most humor and wit, perhaps they hone it in the sibling competition for attention. Middles don't compete on humor.  We have other talents. I'm married to a youngest and he too is quick-witted. I suspect we're together, in part, because I appreciate his humor. I've acquired a touch of wit just by living with him for over twenty years, but if I manage to get a zinger in I'm likely to hear, "leave that to the professionals."  For a funny guy, he takes his role seriously.

I tell you this, because after years as a serious person, I've finally discovered how to tap my lighter side.There is nothing wrong with being a serious person, but if you want to engage others you need to learn to lighten up. For some people it comes naturally, not so much for us serious souls. At this stage in my life everything I do has to do with engaging other people, writing, artwork and presenting. I do a lot of public speaking and I've gotten enough feedback over time that I think I can fairly say, I'm good at it. I wasn't always. I used to be terrified of getting in front of people. Somewhere along the line, I grew into my own skin, yet another benefit of getting older. I discovered that being informal and letting an audience really see me, was OK, and in fact desired.  There is a connection that happens when we let ourselves be truly seen. It's like when we read a book where the inner dialogue of the character echoes our own thoughts. It's a shock of recognition that we share something in common. We feel understood.

With this awareness, I began to assume a conversational tone when I spoke and to talk to an audience the way I would a friend, albeit with a little cleaner vocabulary. With friends, I am often energetic. I have strong opinions and don't hesitate to express them. That kind of energy is useful when you have the microphone. You need passion and energy to be good in front of a crowd. Now I still cannot claim to be quick-witted, but I know how to engage. I study other speakers as I try to figure out what makes the good ones good. I think the trick is to not hide behind a serious demeanor or be too pedantic. Instead you need to bring your natural energy and the openness you would offer to a friend.

The same thing that works for public speaking, also applies to writing. I've been working on a book based on oral histories that I did and have written several versions in several different ways. Because it involves history, I first began writing it as one would a research document. I learned lots of interesting things researching and it was filled with facts, but they began to drown out my voice, not to mention those of my interviewees. One of the things I've discovered in writing this blog is my voice. My yardstick, as to if things will interest you, is whether they interest me. I set aside that first version, even though lots of it was good. I realized it was a different kind of book than the one I wanted to write, or to read. I started over from scratch and wrote in the way I write here. I worried that it might be too informal, as if once I put a book jacket on it, I had to dress up a bit and be more formal. In the end, I wrote it the way I would want to read it, in my comfortable yoga pants.

We all love a good story and within my oral histories I had many of them. My challenge was to not smother them under a heavy sauce of facts, but rather add facts as garnish, something to intrigue the reader enough to explore further. Even though this book involves history, it was written for a broader audience. It wasn't written just for historians nor designed to be scholarly, but rather to let my interviewees form the same connection with the reader that I try to form when I speak. I wanted their humanity to come through.

I doubt I'll ever be noted for my quick wit. More often, I will come up with the perfect zinger the following day. Instead I will be happy to engage an audience through story, be it spoken, written or visual. I hope to form a connection grounded in something common between us, to tell stories that engage us in recognizing ourselves in each other.

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