Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

NaBloPoMo Q&A 8: Never Tell a Story Like It’s Not About You

Louise asked:

I was wondering if you have ever regretted your transparency on the web. Has it worked as a negative or positive influence?

I was 23 years old the first time it happened. It was two hours into 1996. And I was bummed out. So I wrote down how I felt, posted it to my website, and went to bed feeling somewhat better for having verbalized it.

The next morning was a revelation. I woke up to find an inbox full of mail – people’s feelings about their new years, their lives. Some were reassuring, others we commiserative, but they all filled me with hope. Because there were people out there who felt like I did. It was the first time the web showed me the power it had to connect people based on our internal lives.

Later that year I’d start Fray, to enable other people to have that experience. There’s a reason all the stories had to be true, and each ended with a way to respond. I wanted everyone to see the connections that were possible.

Since then, I’ve turned to the web many times. The web has been my therapist, my confidant, and my friend. After 12 years of that, you’re able to learn a whole lot about me if your Google-fu is strong.

(Funny side story. My Uncle Powazek is now a judge in San Diego. To become a state-appointed judge, you have to get interviewed by the secret service. When my uncle went, the men in black said: “We did some research online and wanted to ask, who is Derek Powazek?” Sorry, Unc.)

Dispite my ongoing love affair with the web as a confessional medium, I have been selective with what I share here. There’s plenty that I don’t talk about online. And it can be tricky to decide what goes up, and what gets saved for whispered realtime conversations.

Here’s how I think about it. You should only tell your stories. There will always be stories where other people are really at the heart. Leave it to them to tell those. Tell yours instead.

But there’s the catch. Every story we tell is really about ourselves, whether we call it “storytelling” or wrap it in the cloak of “fiction.” We can’t help it. We experience the world as a story we tell ourselves. It’s just the way our brains work.

And that’s exactly why storytelling is such good therapy. If you can take something that’s happening to you, no matter how hard or messy or intense, and put it down in words, you can take control of it. If you can tell the story, it’s no longer happening to you, you’re happening to it.

The gift the web gives us is that those words, posted online, can create a bond with other people, and solicit their stories in kind. And when it works really well, that emotional back-and-fourth can create a storytelling circuit that becomes far greater than any individual contributor to it.

When that kind of magic happens, it taps into a very deep part of ourselves. It proves that, by our universal stories, none of us are truly alone. We are all of us connected to each other. Just as every breath we take has been recycled through someone else’s lungs, every personal story we have has happened to someone else, too. I find a lot of comfort in that.

So, Louise, no, I don’t for a minute regret anything I’ve ever posted online. Because the connections I’ve made with real people as a result of those virtual words mean more to me than just about anything. Without them, I never would have made it this far.

Thanks for the question, Louise.

* With thanks to Merrit Malloy who said: “Don’t ever tell a story like it wasn’t about you.” And to Ani DiFranco who sang: “Each breath is recycled from someone else’s lungs.”

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.