I was ten years old and we had just moved to Australia from England. I was all long hair, long socks and big glasses. And desperate to fit in.
The teacher asked us to write about ‘Our Most Embarrassing Moment’.
I enjoyed writing and thought this would be a chance to make the other kids laugh with my ‘hilarious’ story. I wanted to be funny and interesting, to get invited to parties and playdates.
Yet as the minutes ticked by and the page remained stubbornly blank, I could feel opportunity leaking away.
I had to write something.
So, I reached back into my memories and came up with The Cheese Story, which I’m recreating here with grown-up perspective (ie, in my ten year old writer’s hands, the story was even duller than what follows).
Every Saturday, our family went to the markets in Bury to buy fruit and vegetables, bread, flowers, cold meats and all kinds of other things. There were lots of stalls, with stall holders shouting above each other in their thick Northern England accents.
Mum and Dad ended up at one of the most popular stalls – the cheese stall. I loved the cheese stall too, and I especially loved the crumbly fresh Lancashire cheese we bought there. The man would hack off a thick slice and wrap it in greaseproof paper. The cheese didn’t last long because Mum would break off chunks to eat in the car on the way home.
The crowd was big at the cheese stall and as I pushed my way to the front, I thought Mum was right behind me calling out her order. When the Lancashire crumbly was handed past me to Mum, I grabbed it out of her hand and swung round telling her, ‘Bags first bite.’ But it wasn’t Mum – I’d grabbed it out of the hand of a complete stranger. It was my most embarrassing moment.
Except it turns out it wasn’t. Because the most embarrassing moment was what happened when I proudly read out my story to the class and there was complete silence.
Not a laugh. Not a smile. I had botched my chance to make a good impression and felt like an idiot.
It’s an army go-to phrase that says being ready beforehand shores up your chances of success in the moment.
Obviously as a ten year old, I didn’t have the experience or the foresight to store away embarrassing moments to pull out when needed. It would have been nice if that had been the case.
But now, as a writer, that’s exactly what I do. I keep my eyes and ears open for the things that happen, the things people say and the way they say them because, one day, they could come in handy. They could either be a story themselves or be part of a bigger one.
Prior preparation is collecting things that just might one day be useful.
Planning is storing them somewhere I can find them again.
Performance is pulling them out to use. Just like I did with this story, which I’d written up in my notes over a year ago.
Seeing and listening is just as important as the writing itself.
Story telling gets all the attention but story thinking – what we do before we write – is far more important. That’s where we lay the groundwork for success.
What do you have stored in your memories or your notebooks, journals, photo collections that could enrich the writing you do?
Being ourselves can be the greatest asset we have in getting and keeping the most finite resource today – attention.
The CEO of US mega-brand Walmart knows how much it matters that we let people see us as human.
Of course we aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. But if the world could see all of the hard-working, well-intentioned people inside our company who are making things better in their communities and in the world, I’m convinced they would be moved by it all. I am. Doug McMillon, Walmart CEO.
But those moments of human-ness, our own and other people’s, can slip out of our grasp at the very time we need them. Unless we’ve carefully captured and saved them for just the right moment.
If only I knew that as a ten year old. Then rather than cobbling something together in desperation, I could have served up a story my classmates would have eaten up.