Here is the full transcript of author Olivia Gatwood’s TEDx Talk: We Find Each Other in the Details at TEDxABQ conference.
Olivia Gatwood – TRANSCRIPT
Jordan convinced me that pads are disgusting. “They make your panties smell like dirty bike chains,” she said. We were sitting on her mother’s plastic coated floral couch, one of us in a swimsuit, the other sworn to layers. The water was her selling point and I was terrified of tampons. Or rather, terrified of the undiscovered crater. The muscle that holds, and pulls, and keeps, and sheds. She said, “I’ll do it for you!” And yes, we had seen each other naked many times.
We had showered together and compared nipples, wished to trade the smalls and bigs of our respective bodies. So it wasn’t unnatural, really, when I squatted on the toilet seat and she laid down on the floor, like a mechanic investigating the underbelly of a car. With plastic syringe in hand, she wedged the packed cotton into me. This is what I saw last before blacking out and collapsing onto the tile. Jordan, blood scholar, in a turquoise bikini, saying, “Now, you are ready to swim.” Thank you. Thank you.
I write poems about shaving my legs, kissing my best friend in her bedroom, mastering the art of concealing the blood stain on the back of my jeans, which is to say, I write poems about girlhood, queerness, shame. Today, I want to talk to you about how our smallest memories can connect us to the larger world. There’s a certain kind of pressure in being a storyteller.
I see it when I teach workshops on poetry, especially for high school students. They want so badly to be the voices of their generation, to write the poem that saves the world. I admire this desire. I, too, have striven towards it. But time and time again, I learned, both through my own writing and through the writing of others, that it is not the big stories that reach millions, it’s the tiny ones.
When I started performing poetry at 16, I saw poets as the keepers of truth. When a poet got on stage to speak, it was like they were a magician casting a spell of knowledge over the audience. I often wondered what my truth would be as a poet, what story would people look to me to tell. Well, I became a poet who writes poems about tampons. I have had hundreds of people from across the country approach me about this poem.
Some of them also had a tampon put in at the hands of someone else, a practice I did not know was as common, until recently. Some of them also blacked out after the first time, a reaction I did not know was as common, until recently. Some of them experienced neither but had a best friend like Jordan, a loud, vivacious girl who controls everything around her. Some of them were Jordan. Some of them still are.
This is where we find connection: through the specific. If we allow ourselves to look at our memories, and instead of insignificant or unrelatable, think of them as a museum – an archive of moments that, regardless of size, have equal weight – this is where we find the poem. It begins with naming the moment as important. So often, I hear people, especially teen girls, talk about their lives as though they are unspectacular or boring. We’re conditioned to do this, to take up less space with our narratives and instead make room for the stories that have historically been deemed most important.
So first, we must resist the urge to brush off our own lives. Once we have named the moment, we can indulge in the act of writing it. I use the word indulge because writing in immense detail is a form of allowing yourself to be gluttonous, to be patient with your language, to introduce the reader to every nook and cranny of your life. And finally, when we share this moment, we see how connections form. If someone in this room stood up and told their most embarrassing story, it would likely not be the same as anyone else’s in this room.
And we’re not looking for identical, we’re looking for connection. Connection happens through knowing what it feels like to be embarrassed. And the only way we can know that feeling is through visceral description and imagery. So, how do we name the moment as important? Well, sometimes we’ve been so trained to dismiss the beauty of our stories that we need the help of other people to see it. When I teach classes on poetry and memory, I have my students write down one memory they have in a backyard.
Of course, they’re able to do this. Usually, what I get back is a short, obscure story that follows a sterile, chronological timeline. But what’s important to note is that this memory stood out enough for them to choose it. When we’re honest with our memories, when we notice what sticks with us, regardless of if we understand why, we must honor and trust that instinct.
Next, the process becomes knitting it out. It seems counter-intuitive, the idea that the more specific you get, the more universal a story becomes, but let me explain. I tell my students to choose one object that was vital to this narrative. I tell them to zoom in and retell the story with that object as the focal point. Let’s say it was a swimming pool. If your memory takes place around a swimming pool, versus an entire backyard, you will inevitably write about all of the ways a swimming pool was present: the smell of chlorine, the glare of the blue water, your new two-piece swimsuit.
Now, if I told you to zoom in even more and tell the story with the two-piece swimsuit as the focal point, you might write about how it was your first time in a bikini; how you were still getting used to the way it rode up your butt; how you were embarrassed of your new belly, so you kept your hands at your lower stomach all day. Maybe there was a girl at the party who’d been wearing bikinis since she was like 11 who made a comment about your stomach, and you spent the rest of the day curled up in a towel while everyone else played chicken. So you’ve just written a poem about a memory at a pool party. But you’ve also written a poem about body image, shame, girlhood, and suddenly, you are connected to everyone who has felt one of these things. And this is where we find each other.
This is why poetry and storytelling matter. I know not everyone in this room is a writer. But everyone in this room has a story. I’m not here to tell you to write the poem – though I hope you leave here with the tools to do so. What I want more than anything is for everyone to leave here looking at a small memory in a new light.
I want you to see your story as something worth telling. One of my favorite quotes comes from the poet Guante, who says, “Don’t tell me about the war, tell me about your brother’s empty bedroom.” When I approached writing my first book, I didn’t go into it with the intent of writing a bunch of stories about girlhood, body, or shame; instead, I simply wrote a series of anecdotes that reflected these ideas.
Now, I want you to remember your first kiss. Where it was. Who it was with. How it felt. I’m going to tell you about my first kiss, let’s see what we have in common. I had rehearsed the story before telling it. Practiced it during imagined interviews in a shower. It was 2004, and his name was Noah, my best friend since grade school. We wanted the first kiss to be a safe bet, the kind we could feel good about telling our kids, but didn’t end in heartbreak or sex. I liked this small pill of a story, how it made my life bite-sized and interesting. But still, there had always been Margo. How her spit was tacky and harsh from gummy new growth.