Several years ago, a dear friend of mine held an intimate dinner for her 50th birthday party. She didn’t invite me. The exclusion hurt a great deal. We’d spoken daily for the past two if not three years, we’d guided each other through major personal crises, and enjoyed a cup of tea or a meal together at least once a week. We were close friends, I thought; it never occurred to me I wouldn’t be included. When I asked her why, she bumbled through several excuses and then finally said, “Well, you know. You have that big personality.”
Throughout my life, I have battled with this big personality and not always successfully (example one: my pesky practice marriage). I have tried to contain it or squelch it or at least learn to use it appropriately (I’m called in quite often for boring dinner parties). But through the years, the words of well-meaning yet misdirected authority figures echoed in my head: “Don’t draw attention to yourself.” I tried my best to obey.
Somewhere around age 48 — after a lifetime of careers where I attempted to stay appropriately behind the scenes — I had a revelation. I was lecting at my church (reading the Old or New Testament lessons on Sundays) and I realized how much pure joy I experienced while reading the lessons in front of the congregation. My fellow church goers would tell me how much they loved listening to me read, how I brought the stories and the words to life. They even asked if I’d ever considered reading books on tape.
At the same time, I had my own stories I wanted to tell. As a visual artist, I told the stories through obsessive pencil drawings, trying to expand the images beyond the boundaries of the page, allowing the marks to travel off the paper and keep going, limitless. I felt compelled to make larger and larger artwork. Instead of drawings, I was creating installations in my mind, large-scale work that took up space. Lots and lots of space.
Also at the same time, a friend asked me if I wanted to take a public speaking class with her because she was afraid of talking in front of an audience. I thought to myself, “That’s so strange. How can someone be afraid of an audience? I actually look for audiences.” I took the class.
And it hit me. I didn’t want my artwork to take up space; I wanted to take up space. I wanted to tell my stories firsthand, not just visually through drawings. I wanted to draw attention to myself. Most importantly, what apparently terrified other people — standing in front of an audience — felt perfectly natural to me. That right there is the definition of a gift, some would say a gift from God. I knew I had to use this gift, humbly of course, no matter who got upset.
Coming Full Circle
Home at last.
Hopefully, my big personality will be coming to you in book form next year. To that end, I am doing a great deal of research and this blog topic came to me while I was reading a fabulous book edited by William Zinsser called, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. He includes a whole host of authors who’ve written memoirs, including Frank McCourt, Annie Dillard, and Toni Morrison. Morrison writes a marvelous passage about memory and imagination. Her words are intended for writers, but I think they’re for all of us, as we think about who we are and who we were originally meant to be:
You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.
Tricia Rose Burt is a frequent guest storyteller with The Moth, as well as a visual artist, writer and performer. See more of her work at www.triciaroseburt.com.