Earning My Air

I didn’t realize I was supposed to give the Keynote speech at Willamette Writers Conference until the night before.   I went to bed Friday night asking my unconscious mind to give me the answer.


I woke up Saturday morning with the following thought: “there is someone in that room who is about to give up.  Not on writing…on life.    I have to speak to them. Help them. Give them hope, show them the way out, if possible.”


But how?   One of my natural tendencies is to go into teacher mode. But however satisfying it might be to offer up valuable information and strategies and tactics learned over the years, that is all garnish.  “Technobabble.”     But if I can share stories of the moments in my life that were turning points, in which I learned something critical, I can create “epiphany bridges” that allow them to feel what I felt, both the despair and the realization that there is a way out of the trap, and the results.


IF I can be vulnerable enough to be totally honest, it can work. But I can’t fake it, and I can’t be acting.  I have to create a personal connection with the people in that room, searching the faces, wondering who it is who might go back home and throw their computer against the wall…or drop it into the bathtub with them.


No, its not my responsibility.  Yes, it is my honor to be of service.  Yes, I feel the connection, referred to in the Koisan expression “Num”: one soul peering out through many eyes.  Yes, I feel the pain of feeling disconnected through losing or dishonoring yourself, lying to yourself, selling out your dreams, breaking your sacred promises.


We’ve all done it.   And twenty-five years ago, a young black belt named Uli asked me “when will I stop being afraid?” and I had no answer for him. And six months later he blew his brains out.   While he might have killed himself no matter what I or anyone else said, I swore that I’d never sit there with a stupid expression on my face again.   I would TRY dammit.  I would try.


So…I listened to the very nice introduction by a very nice lady, and then walked up on the stage.   Took a deep breath, scanning the audience, saying a little prayer: “there is someone here who needs the Light.   Step out of the damned way, Steve…and let it through.”


I told the “Friday the 13th” story about selling out my “little boy”, the price I paid, and the year of struggle to come back.  Of beginning to fear that I was selling out my childhood by avoiding speaking of racial issues in my work.  It was cowardice, pure and simple.   And how my friend Darnell reminded me that this was the time, and I was the person to do it.    “If not you, who?  If not now, when? And why would you want to write stories for the pleasure of people you wouldn’t have in your home?”


And how that lead to some of the greatest writing of my life, even if they weren’t as externally successful as I’d hoped.  I’d done my best. Which is all any of us can do.   And that that little boy inside me is HAPPY that I did.    I’ve made a living.  Raised a family.  Found love.   Walked the martial path for a lifetime.  Everything I wanted as a child.   If I didn’t get everything I wanted as an adult…well, life ain’t over yet.  Not by a long shot.



I got a standing ovation.  And people were shaking my hand and clapping me on the back and telling me it was the best talk they’d ever heard…and I didn’t care. I was looking for the eyes. The eyes don’t lie.


And over the next twenty four hours, a dozen different people came up to me, in quiet moments, and said that they felt as if THEY were the person I came there to speak to. That they had new hope, new courage for their work.  Spoke of abuse and pain and a new commitment to USE that pain to help others.


Asked me how I could have understood what they needed.


How? Because they are me.  They are all me.  And by feeling their pain, and connecting it with my own, all I have to do is help myself, and rememeber how I did it, and speak that truth…and I can help them as well.


And then..?   And then their victories are mine, as well.  And brothers and sisters, nothing, NOTHING in the world feels better than that.


Earned my air this weekend.   Yes, I did.






(The application of this same idea to fiction is the core of the “Lifewriting” idea I’ve developed for thirty years.   If you’d like to explore it, you can join us at www.lifewritingpremium.com)


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