I had a WOW! moment this week—You know, one of those rare times when the fullness of something you thought you knew and understood really comes to life inside you. Kind of like knowing there’s a recliner in a dark living room. You know it’s there because you’ve busted your shin against it a time or two. Then all of a sudden someone turns on a light, and the chair you knew was always there is now in full color and view. You can confidently walk towards it, sit in it if you want to, walk around it if you choose, whatever, because the path to it and the shape, colors, and texture of that chair are crystal clear.
Here’s what happened . . .
A high school teacher contacted me recently to ask if I’d be interested in allowing his students to interview me. I agreed, of course, but since time schedules were tight on both ends, we decided to do the interview over phone. So, on the agreed upon day, he called from his classroom and put me on speaker phone.
At first the kids were a bit shy, hesitantly asking stock questions like, “Where do you get your ideas? How long does it take you to write a book?” While I’m answering the questions, I’m thinking, “Man, if I had a choice between sitting in a classroom and listening to some old broad blabber over a speaker phone about how long she’d been writing or me doing something else, I’d choose doing something else . . . like getting a root canal.” No, really, it’s true, I was boring myself.
I knew the teacher had prepared questions beforehand to make sure the kids participated in the interview, but I also knew that as soon as we hung up the phone, they’d forget 98% of what was said. And who could blame them? In truth, when you push aside the curtain of social niceties, 97% of the human population wants to talk about themselves, their issues, their accomplishments, their dreams. They’ll listen to you because it’s the polite thing to do, but few really ‘hear’ what you’ve got to say. Why? Because all we’re yakking about is ourselves. —My book—My tour—My life—My kids—My this—My that. Blah—who gives a flip, really? Folks will hear you talk about these things, though, if what you have to say on the subject gives them something, like laughter, motivation, encouragement, hope, etc. In the same vein, if your words stoke any of their emotional embers, be it anger, pride, fear, happiness, etc, you’ll usually find yourself with more ‘hearers’ than not. All that being said, though, I knew I faced an even greater challenge here because I was talking to teens, the majority of whom have the attention span of a gnat. So I decided to gamble….
As soon as the next question was asked… “How old were you when you started writing?” I threw that slow-moving, boring-ass train off the track with this answer…. “I started playing around with words when I was a kid, but I really didn’t start writing until the day I saw my first dead body.”
There was dead silence on the other end of the phone.
Then I heard the teacher clear his throat. He asked, “Did you say dead body?”
I confirmed and gave a short summary of the first autopsy I’d helped with and how that changed the way I wrote. In my mind, that’s when I really started ‘writing’ because I went from imagining what it was like (even with research) to hold a person’s brains, heart, liver, etc., in my hands, to knowing what if felt like, smelled like, looked like.
As I suspected, this opened a flood gate, and the kids couldn’t ask questions fast enough. Before I knew it we were all over the place, jumping from crime scenes to embalming rooms, to ghost hunts, and how all this fit into writing. Time flew by, making the hour-long interview seem like five minutes. When the teacher told the kids it was time to end the interview, I heard a loud collective groan. They didn’t want it to end.
Later that day, hours after the interview, the teacher called to let me know that since the interview, his students had been hounding him for copies of my books, and he wanted to surprise them with autographed copies. Needless to say, I was thrilled. I had him send me the names of all the students who’d been in the class, along with the box of books, so I could personalize each copy.
My WOW came when I signed the first book: For Ana—remember to always keep it real— In that moment, I flashed back to the sound of the kids’ excited chatter over the phone, their hunger to hear more, to understand more, their disappointment when we had to hang up. Reviewing that, I realized I had told them very little about Deborah or her writing process. Instead, I’d shared my adventures with them, fleshing out the stories with details of sights and sounds and smells, bringing the kids as up-close and personal as I could so each of them felt like they were standing right there with me, experiencing those same adventures. And I did it without the physical aid of gestures, facial expressions, or eye contact. And they heard.
So did I.
I’m a storyteller. I just happen to write down more of my stories than I speak them, which makes it all the more important for me to pay attention to each word I put on a page. They have to have life—they need to breathe—and I’m the one who needs to remember to always keep it real.