Monday, October 2, 2017

Going Bald in Public: A Story about our Stories and their Audiences, by Anne Nesbet

A few years ago a friend invited me to Lake Tahoe, and while I was swimming in that cold water, I learned a lesson about kindness and audiences that I've never forgotten. Here's the story:

I went up to Tahoe to lose my hair. Really! I had just started chemo, and it was the end of the summer, and the experienced oncology nurses had pointed at a date on the calendar and said, "Hair should start coming out about then." My attitude was a mixture of horror and curiosity. I had never had all my hair fall out before! My friend Linda (who had been through this sort of thing herself) said, "Anne, come stay with us up at Tahoe. It'll be a great place to lose your hair!"



And she was right. It was healing, after all the first-round-of-chemo nausea, to be up in a place where the air felt practically newborn, it was so crisp and clear. And to be able to go walking in mountains and under lovely trees! And to have someone around whose attitude was as crisp and refreshing as the air: "Okay, Anne!" she said every morning. "Making progress? How's that hair coming along?"

And every day I took my battle-scarred, strange-looking, hair-shedding self down to the dock to swim (euphemism for "jump in, paddle about for a second, and climb back out") in the cold, bracing, wonderful water of Lake Tahoe.  It was wonderful!

And then one afternoon, I went down to the dock, and there were other people on it. Not just "other people": a group of teenagers, all boys. For a moment I froze. Perhaps you can understand: I had had a lot of surgery, not that long before. My swimsuit fit very strangely, and there were scars showing, and there was that weird lump that was the chemo port, and--and of course I was losing my hair. My head looked like it had just lost several big fights with an angry cat.

Well, I saw all those boys on the dock, and part of me was suddenly in 7th grade all over again--just wanting to take this battered body and obviously balding head of mine and hide. But I also didn't want to miss my dip into the magic water! So I forced myself to be brave--to march down that dock like I belonged there--to whip off my fleece and step onto the ladder, ignoring what I assumed were the staring, possibly mocking eyes of my audience--

and then one of those very scary people spoke out, just as I reached for the ladder (he was older than the others--it turned out I hadn't looked at them very closely). And what he said was,

"You know what, my wife did this, what you're doing now. Their mother did this. Seven years ago now." He made a funny little sound in his throat and added, "I just wanted you to know--she's doing really well now. Their mother."

And I looked up at them, finally, and saw what I had missed by not really looking before: not judgment, but kindness. Not some scary imagined other ("teenage boys"!), but human beings. (Then of course I couldn't see much at all, because of tears followed promptly by lake water!)

I learned something on that dock, and it occurs to me now that what I learned can be phrased in terms of writers and readers, books and audiences.

Let me count the ways:

1. When a book goes out into the world, it is exciting and frightening, both at once. It can feel like all your secret scars are going out on parade. It is as scary as walking out onto a crowded dock when your hair is coming out in clumps.

2. Fear makes us bad readers--in particular, bad readers of our audience. Here's a bit of irony: I misjudged these people because I was so clamped up in my own anxiety that they might be judging me. When we write, it is our solemn duty to be less afraid. We have to open up for our audiences, whoever they may turn out to be. Almost certainly they are more complicated and more human than we may think at first.

3. Our readers carry many stories in them. That is amazing and something a writer can't forget. Our stories reach out to theirs. All of these things are wonderfully plural, too: the stories people carry inside them; the stories they are ready or need or long to hear.

4. And finally, that father did what a good writer does: he told me a story that touched my heart and opened the world to me so that I saw it in a different way. A good story tells us that life may be hard, but we are not alone. It must have taken courage to speak up, in the face of all my determined shyness. But what a gift his story was! Let's all be as brave in our story-telling as that father was that day.

I think of this man and his sons (and their mother!) often. I am so grateful to them. I hope they are doing well. Some part of everything I write will always have a bit of lake-water in it, to remind me to be more open, to be ready to meet people and their stories, wherever they may be.
Under this hat, progress toward baldness was being made!

25 comments:

  1. Anne, I do not have a book out in the world yet, but your story reminds me of how we all carry around our insecurities as writers. We forget that we can rely on kindness, that people will meet us with shared experiences... and that makes all the difference. What a profound message you shared today. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your voice is already out in the world, even if not yet in "book" form! Poems, essays, posts--they all take courage, too. Wishing you all the best, and thank you for your kind words here.

      Delete
  2. Dear Anne,
    Thank you for sharing this story, for sharing your painful and vulnerable moments, and for tying them to being writers and being human. You brought me to tears (not too difficult, nowadays, but even so.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Michael! I so appreciate everything you do to draw stories out of all of us....

      Delete
  3. Wonderful story!! I love how you connected it to books and audiences. Writers, be brave! Thank you for sharing, Anne.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When I watch you interacting so generously and wholeheartedly with your readers, I am truly moved, Jennifer! Inspired by you always!

      Delete
  4. Oh, Anne. You speak such truth. And you do it beautifully. Thank you for sharing this. Sending you love and looking forward to swapping stories in person again soon. <3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Jenny! I look forward to that future in-person story swap as much as you do!! :)

      Delete
  5. Anne, I really needed to see this right now, in this last couple of months before the next book comes out. I've always thought of this feeling as stage fright, but I think it goes deeper than that—writers put more of themselves into the stories they weave than could ever be obvious on a stage. Thank you for the reminder that we should look for kindness as well!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kristin, a lot of us have been waiting for Windhome for a long time! It will find a warm and friendly home in many places. But I know that nerves and shakiness are part of the pre-launch experience.... Sending you strength vibes, and hugs!

      Delete
  6. This post is a balm for today and every day we are sore at heart. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sore at heart--yes. It comforts me to know so many kind and brave and creative people, so thank you!

      Delete
  7. Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Christine. I have taken a lot of encouragement from your posts over the last few years, even though I don't speak up to say so as often as I should. Thank you so much for being you!

      Delete
  8. Beautiful, Anne. Gives me courage. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Ellen! I love your stories so much and am hoping for more of them soon. <3

      Delete
  9. Oh, Anne, you are incredible, you and your beautiful heart. Thank you for sharing this story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You have the gift of setting people at ease and helping them shed that awkward, sticky coating of shyness some of us hide behind, so THANK YOU, dear Nikki!

      Delete
  10. Anne, thank you so much for sharing this experience with us. What a beautiful lesson in courage, yours and his. You make the world a better place. ❤️

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess the thing is that any one of us may, some afternoon--or via some book we write, even if it only sold a few copies and got middling reviews--make the world a better place in some small way. :) We never know when that moment will arrive, however. And a lot of feeling foolish must happen along the way. And it seems entirely likely that that man went home that day and said to his wife, "I think I freaked out a poor woman at the lake today"--without realizing that really he had reached my soul and healed something there! So we all operate in the dark (but with hope, I hope).

      Delete
    2. A fantastic comment after a beautiful post. This post (and the comments it has engendered) just keeps giving. Thank you, Anne!

      Delete
  11. Beautiful story. Just what I needed to read before starting my work day. Thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Rebecca Van Slyke10/3/17, 1:06 PM

    *wiping lake water out of my own eyes...
    Thank you for being brave and jumping in.
    And for this:
    "A good story tells us that life may be hard, but we are not alone."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. <3
      I'm trying to remember to jump in more!

      Delete

Thanks for adding to the mayhem!