Several weeks ago I sort of volunteered to give a talk at our school’s annual faculty retreat. The day is filled with breakout sessions, much like the typical romance writing conference. Usually, the experienced teachers are quick to propose their pilgrimages, their prayer retreats, their journey of faith through the study of art… anything that might help fill a day of Teacher Detention. They’re the wise ones of the faculty: they know how to fill time. I’m not a popular teacher: I sit in the peanut gallery.
So why, this time, did I put myself in the hot seat? My work BFF, raised in the evangelical Christian tradition, summed it up: “You have been Called. Do It.” I thought for a second, told myself stop thinking, and shot off a possible topic to the organizer.
My proposal, on Finding God in the Midst of Suffering, was accepted immediately. What? No argument? No questioning? No “gee, we appreciate your thought, but…” Nope. In this game of Tag, I was It.
Librarian that I am, I started with marathon research, viewing the topic from every conceivable angle. The results were depressing. With good reason: how could the human experience of suffering, with all its dimensions of pain, anxiety, despair, and agony not be depressing? We’re not talking about build-your-own sundaes here.
I printed out pages and pages of learned examinations of suffering. Those genius brains had written volumes that avalanched down the high hills of history and buried unassuming teachers alive.
Every single time I tried to read these papers, my eyes glazed over. I couldn’t do it. I had nothing. Do you hear me, world? Nothing!
Worse, I was facing off against a more experienced teacher. His talk was on Gratitude. Great, I complained at home. I get the widows and orphans. He gets the cool people, the ones who are easy to please. Who doesn’t want to be happy? Having been programmed against the Catholic high school equivalent of Kristan Higgins or Nora Roberts, I printed out 15 handouts. Nobody would come, I figured. I stopped trying.
When the hour of doom came, people trickled in, picked up the handouts from the chairs, and, to my surprise, didn’t get up and rush to find a seat at the (better) (happier) (more fun) celebrity talk. More people came in. We ran out of handouts. The room filled. What were they thinking? Didn’t they know they were in the wrong room?
Raymond introduced me. I was petrified, mortified, A Beautiful Mind come to life. “It’s not my job to make you feel better,” I said, to start. “ Or solve your problems. And everything that goes wrong in this talk—“ I pointed at the friend who’d put me here “– is all his fault.”
They laughed. Then, as I assured them we didn’t have time to cover all my stories of suffering, they began to quiet. When I touched on my problems with post-partum depression, the room went dead still. Nothing I said was complex or earthshaking. It was me sharing, my own sad, stupid experiences. My own struggles to find my way back to the light. And three verses of Scripture I hoped would guide them, and me, through the shit-storm.
And somehow, it worked. This presentation, weak and ill-prepared, this testimony, touched my peers. Not just immediately, but every day for a full week, people shared their own experiences privately. And thanked me. Praise can be humbling. Disconcerting. Confusing.
I found myself in a conversation with a fellow teacher, a woman I admired and feared. Her congratulations were difficult to take, and I’m afraid I blurted out how bewildered I was.
“Are you kidding?” she said. “It was so completely different from anything we’ve ever had at retreat before. And you said what you felt, and you were honest. And you said things that were real.”
Now, taking this back to the perpetual Mermaid topic, how does this story speak to writing? We writers put ourselves out there, every day. We kill ourselves to tell stories. Our audiences compare us to award-winners, childhood favorites, geniuses of the craft, and the other writers who inspired us to take up our pens. I can’t compete with the Greats. But I can tell stories and this is what readers look for… the fresh, new, personal voice. We can’t compete with the Noras and Kristans in RomanceLand, but we can entertain. We can share our stories and touch people. All we need to do is speak from the heart.