I made it all the way to the Chicago city finals of the Young Authors contest when I was 10 years old. My story, The Neverending Sandwich, written on construction paper pages shaped like bread, lettuce, meat, and mustard, did not place. That was the first book I ever wrote, and until last year, it was the only one. And not just because my fourth grade soul was crushed by the weight of defeat, but also because writing is really, really hard.
My more recent story, Have You Ever Heard a Giraffe Laugh? started off as a poem for my nephew and by the wonders of the creative process morphed into a full-fledged children’s book. I won’t pretend to have a full understanding of how this happened, but I can identify some constant variables, the most important of which has got to be my support network. I was pushed, motivated, inspired, and even challenged by my friends, my family, and my…coworkers.
I had been working at NS for 11 months when COVID struck, and while I am extremely grateful that I can perform my job remotely, it still stinks. I had completed week seven of the eight-week Storytelling Workshop, led by one of the Principal Engineers, Nate Nichols. All of the class’s alumni raved about it, and while it had nothing at all to do with my core responsibilities, it had everything to do with my job.
I first found out about the class because of a book that Narrative Science had published, Let Your People Be People, that was inspired by the class and co-written by Nate and another Narrative Scientist, Anna Walsh. I have encountered company-spun books before and was admittedly skeptical of hopping on the energy bus, but I found the message of the book to be tremendously informative.
There is no Kool-Aid here, just a simple truth that humans are hardwired to ingest knowledge in the form of stories. Without spoiling too much, storytelling is the whole basis of language, and when you think about it that way, everyone really is a storyteller.
Boss asks how was your weekend? Tell them a story. Have to deliver a project update to your department? That’s a story. Customer emails asking about a feature request? Story. I’d even argue filing your taxes is a dreary, dreadful form of storytelling.
Now whether or not everyone is telling a story worth listening to is a different question, but that’s why I was so nervous and excited about our storytelling presentations. I felt like I had unlocked some great mystery, not with a complex and multidimensional solution, but with a pocketknife–albeit a sharp one. The progress had been gradual, but in addition to bringing me closer to my colleagues in the workshops, it brought me closer with my own form of storytelling.
We explored tactics you could use to build your credibility, to establish emotional connections, to engage the audience with eye contact and body mechanics. We mapped out our stories, identified rising action, building drama and the sweet, delicate twists. But while all of this was happening, we were refining our own awareness, and verifying to the group and ourselves that we were storytellers.
Making that desire to improve this ability publicly known, and having an external audience supporting you in this pursuit was an eye-opening experience for me, and instilled a great deal of confidence in myself. After all, once you discover you’re a storyteller, then you need to figure out which story to tell.
Emboldened in this knowledge, I mentioned that I was “workshopping a book” which sounds horribly pretentious now, but at the time probably also sounded horribly pretentious. Only a couple of coworkers knew at this point, and to my surprise, there was a strong level of interest in learning more from my classmates (it did feel very much like a fun college elective). Best of all, I was astounded to learn that more than a couple of my coworkers had written books themselves!
Had I asked any of my colleagues about their literary experience of course they would have told me, and more than that, given me plenty of advice, tips, and resources, but because I didn’t think of myself as a storyteller up to that point I didn’t feel I had any grounds to ask. What had previously seemed to be a secret society of authors was actively unfolding in front of my face! People were now asking me in the elevator or in the hallway about my children’s book, when could they see a draft and suddenly it was this very real thing outside of just my own mind.
I got a tip from my coworker and published author in her own right, Stef Caldwell, to check out some SaaS based publishing tools and soon I was booking conference rooms after work to meet with an illustrator and review sketches in real time instead of sending PDF’s back and forth via email. Momentum is extremely powerful, and I was gaining mass and speed and the only thing that could possibly have stopped me was…a global pandemic.
Everything ground to a halt, whereas I had been wondering whether or not to plug my book after my Storytelling presentation, I was now wondering if we’d ever finish the class at all. All progress on the book front fell to the back-burner as we panic bought canned beans and ramen but slowly, as things settled down, people began to reach out again.
How’s the book coming along? Can I buy a copy? What’s the intended age range? Small questions, but social accountability is a wild phenomenon, and because I felt confident in my identity as a storyteller I put myself out there. As a result, people cared, people boosted me up, and after a couple of months of stagnation I dusted myself off and got back on the giraffe.
I think it was in September when we had our Q3 department “off-site” and I shared the first ever hardcover version that my girlfriend had printed for me for my 30th birthday that month. Immediately, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the criticism was constructive and actionable (kids don’t know what an osprey is, add a glossary!). People were placing orders for Christmas and I now had a real deadline to hit. I created a Kickstarter, and was blown away by the support from my coworkers and their extended network. Our initial goal was $2,000 to help offset printing costs, but we finished with almost $12,000!
Now, two months out from having launched my own website, I don’t feel terribly different as an Author, but I suppose that’s because I already identify as a storyteller.