Imperfect, In Progress
Updated: May 5
Twice over the past several weeks, I have found myself in front of a room of several dozen people, facing a microphone and an audience expecting me to share a personal story. Each time I walked to the stage, I felt a rush of nerves while mulling over my opening line, fretting over how I would end the story and worried my courage to be vulnerable may give out or that I might regret oversharing.
Yet after verbalizing my first thought, I had the gumption to continue to the next beat. Soon a rhythm emerged, a translation of the vivid images in my brain into a relatively structured (and I'd like to think intelligible and insightful) oral narrative. Though my storytelling wasn’t perfect, the small audience received my words graciously, their laughs and nods a sign of human connection not offered by storytelling constrained to the page. In this space beyond my comfort zone, I gained perspective on sharing unpolished stories, how to identify on-ramps to storytelling, and how a personal story can be a generous gift.
My first story was delivered at an open mic storytelling night hosted in a dimly lit cafe. Abstract art hung on painted CMU walls, rows of mismatched chairs faced a low stage, and a bar at the back of the room sold draft beer and mozzarella sticks. The invitation was open to anyone: share a story about "growing up." My wife and I had attended this event before, but I had declined to participate onstage previously, concerned my personal experience wasn't as colorful, humorous, heart-wrenching or daring as the more vociferous attendees. When I tell stories, I feel more comfortable having time to write out a fictional plot and characters, to utilize another person's experience to convey emotion, pain, confusion, ambition, frantic missteps and the complex beauty of life. But when I learned the night's theme was adolescence, I cautiously let down my guard, and the shape of a story and a desire to share it began to incubate in my imagination. After listening to a few speakers, I dropped my name in the hat during the intermission. Within minutes, I was called to the stage.
As I walked to the mic past tables stacked against the wall, I recognized the images of childhood floating through my head had been simmering there for weeks, since going on a bike ride with my dad. He had let me borrow a Raleigh road bike he'd picked up at a garage sale, and we pedaled through new neighborhood streets in my hometown which had recently replaced a forest of oaks, pines, gopher tortoises and giant limestone sink holes. From my perch on the bicycle, a chance sighting of a remaining natural landmark transported me back in time. It told a story of placemaking, of the evolving subdivision I grew up in and the surrounding woods I explored with my family, even as it was incrementally cleared to make room for more houses.
This memorable natural setting offered a narrative through line, strung between specific childhood recollections, such as crawling along the gap between a chain-link and wooden fence with my brothers, where we navigated the dangers of barbed wire and poison ivy at the barrier of our new neighbor's backyard. Or the discovery of a trail network through the woods, where we found a bear trap, huge grass fields to feature in a homemade movie, and a giant hole in the ground lined with outcroppings of white rocks and ancient trees anchored into the collapsed earth. On the recent bike ride with my dad, I happened to spot one of these dark, rocky sinkholes hidden in a patch of preserved trees. Otherwise, I wouldn't have recognized the area, since it had been upended with pavement, road signs and other human-oriented landmarks.
I finished my story in the cafe with a realization I articulated for the first time: while witnessing the transformation of my childhood landscape on the bike ride, I also noticed preserved edges of wildness, small natural gathering places for the next generation to approach and commune with. Even after extensive habitat disruption, a human regulation had protected one fenced-off corner of greenspace for gopher tortoises. The starkly developed land still contained a few nature trails, patches of wetland and newly planted trees, whose shade would eventually grow into a respite for new explorers.
Telling this story at the cafe was a milestone for me, a challenge to my preferred form of "storytelling," a loosening of my need to compare myself to others. It was a stone rolling down a hill after an initial push.
A second opportunity for storytelling occurred only a couple weeks later, when my pastor asked me to share a personal story with our church. I had already turned down the request once, so I hesitantly said yes, expectant that a rhythm or a through line would again emerge. I spent hours daydreaming and stewing over the focus of the story while sitting on the couch in the early morning, commuting to work, and going on nighttime walks. Based on my religious upbringing, I struggled with the pressure to tell a comprehensive summary of my life, to offer a clear "before and after" image of how God has surprised me, rescued me or made my life better. I scribbled notes in a journal and worried about how to give an explanation for my multifaceted, humdrum, sometimes contradictory existence. The source of these expectations was largely internal, of course, as my pastor had merely asked me to share about a time I sensed God was close or was teaching me something.
As one does, I searched the internet and found a New York Times essay by Daniel McDermond, How to Tell a Good Story, which equates the art of storytelling with gift giving. Inspired by this instruction, I changed course. Rather than trying to justify my existence or explain every detail of my life, instead I would seek to impart one piece of interest from my experience, even if still a work in progress. After all, that's what I'm after when conversing with a friend over a meal or opening a novel - to satisfy my thirst for connection, to be reminded I'm not alone.
The week before I told my story at church, a friend greeted me and proceeded to express their love and care for me. I bristled slightly, unwilling to fully embrace this affection. The following day, as I sat alone watching trees sway in the wind, several memories resurfaced of other people expressing their love for me. I added more lines to my journal, but this time a handful of specific scenes from my past became a tightly knit story I grew eager to share.
That Sunday morning, my rubber soles squeaked against the concrete floor as walked to the microphone and turned to face the small congregation seated in metal folding chairs. I set my notes on the music stand, which had a piece of paper taped to it welcoming the "friends of Bill Wilson" who used the church sanctuary for AA meetings during the week.
"Have you ever gone through a crazy experience and lived to talk about it, except the reason you faced the challenge was your own poor judgement?" So I began to detail my experience of almost getting run over by a semi-truck on the interstate while driving with my brothers across the plains of Kansas.
I had been piloting my tiny two door car along the two-lane I-70 on a cross-country summer trip during college. One of my brothers was curating a music playlist on his Bluetooth speaker (since my base-model car had no frills nor working radio), and my other brother periodically shared humorous names and wacky scenes while reading Game of Thrones in the back seat.
I was the only one who could drive manual transmission and was getting tired of being stuck behind a slow truck. In broad daylight, I coasted into the opposite lane, only to find a semi-truck barreling toward us before I could overtake the slower vehicle beside us. It was a chilling experience, my instincts locking up in what can be called "lizard brain." Even with my hands gripping the wheel, my foot at the pedals, and my brothers protesting with valid hysteria, I could not change our trajectory by either speeding up or slowing down to return us to the correct lane. With loud honks, the enormous truck hurtling closer and closer to our miniscule hatchback finally swerved into the roughly paved shoulder to avoid a head-on collision. In the aftermath of our hair-raising near miss, my brain thawed, and my response time returned. Perhaps against our better judgement, I kept driving the vehicle westward on the interstate.
This anecdote was my launching point, a segue into the through line I wanted to offer the audience: in my frazzled, unresponsive state during disorienting and challenging experiences, reminders of my value and expressions of love can help me slow down, pause, and make more sober-minded decisions. After sharing two more personal stories on this theme, I returned to my seat. I wasn't worried I had left something out, and I didn't have a vulnerability hangover. Instead, I'd offered a gift I had recently been given: enough space to slow down and notice I am beloved, even in the midst of my poor judgement and limited vision. In that light, I begin to notice launching pads for storytelling, finding common threads in my experience that can encourage, entertain and foster connection with others.
I’m going to continue thinking about that sinkhole in my hometown, about the time in Kansas I couldn’t think fast enough to brake and change lanes. Translating these experiences into stories and voicing them to others has instilled in me an awareness of accountability—as I release a story into the world, with all its loose ends, it is but one piece of a larger exchange. A collective wrestling with, discerning and then telling of our truth, and then retelling it as things become more clear, as new opportunities arise, and as we step forward and raise our voices. Hopefully my sharing, in whatever format or degree of polish, will be received as a gift by its hearers (though not everyone will, and that is okay). But may it also be recognized as an invitation to participate in the larger conversation of our imperfect, in progress existence, with or without a microphone.
"The spirituality of imperfection begins with the recognition that trying to be perfect is the most tragic human mistake."
- Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, from The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning