The first time I read some of my writing out loud in front of people I almost peed my pants. You see, the story was embarrassing and it was about me. I write creative nonfiction, which means there’s no hiding behind a safe filter of a fictional narrator.
The story I read that first time was about when I heard the news that my ex-boyfriend of four years was engaged, and how completely crazy tailspin nutty emotional it made me. There’s another story about when the mean girls in seventh-grade P.E. pantsed me in front of the entire class. Then there’s my favorite: my experience posing for nude photographs. The first time I read that one out loud, my dad was there.
But as scared as I was to read my first-person, nonfiction story, the reward of sharing it was like nothing I could have anticipated. People I didn't know came up to me and said things like, "Thank you for sharing your story," and, "I've felt the same way and always thought I was the only one."
People wanted to know how I got the courage to share something so personal. And, really, I’ve just never known any other way to write. I think it’s a shame that much of the human experience gets hidden behind constructed façades based on our perceptions of what the world expects of us.
The more I write and the more I share my stories, the more I realize that people long for authentic connection — no matter how miniscule a connection they make — even with a stranger. They want to know they're not alone in their pain, lust, embarrassment, hate, mistakes, flaws, anger, addiction and longing. They want to know that someone else has had a similar experience, and survived to tell about it.
So I started a storytelling project in the form of a digital micro-magazine. It’s called Under the Gum Tree, a literary magazine exclusively publishing creative nonfiction and visual art. It strives for authentic connection through vulnerability, by harnessing the power of sharing stories without shame.
And there is power. After publishing the premiere issue in August 2011, I received an email from a subscriber thanking me for manifesting my own creativity and saying that reading the magazine provided her with an “infectious inspiration.”
The premiere issue features an excerpt from the hybrid memoir The Arsenic Lobster by Peter Grandbois, a meditation on porches and losing one’s mother by Kate Washington, and stunning photography by Bryan and Stephanie Mazzarello.
We’re about to publish the third issue, and we are publishing stories from writers like Steve Almond, whose piece questions whether the convenience of technology diminishes the music-listening experience, and Colleen Kinder, whose extensive essay explores life as a chronic blusher:
“Willpower accomplished nothing. In fact, willpower like mine just stoked the fire. So I tired avoidance. I steered clear of any situation that might give my skin occasion to flare. I wore shorts under my plaid uniform skirt. I locked my journal in a small box under my bed and hid the key inside an unassuming stuffed animal beaver whose tail region I had split open with scissors. I did not raise my hand.”
--Colleen Kinder, from “One Bright Case of Idiopathic Craniofacial
Erythema,” in Under the Gum Tree Winter 2012
Perhaps the thing I am most proud of in creating Under the Gum Tree is that alongside these accomplished artists, I also published a story by my childhood best friend about her first pregnancy: one that was a surprise to her and her then-ex-boyfriend (now husband) and an abomination to her devout Christian parents.
I have the chance to help others tell stories that need to be told, because we all have a story that can help at least one other person in the world. That’s the goal of telling stories without shame.