Hi. I'm nic.
It didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer until the summer I turned twenty-three. By then, I was a two-time college dropout who’d hopped a plane to Israel with all of forty dollars in my pocket, hoping to find a remedy for an eleven-year identity crisis among the ruins of the Bible’s holiest city. I’d tried on a variety of metaphorical shoes at that point—undergraduate psychology major, retail store manager, personal assistant, youth group leader, fitness trainer, model, teen mentor, aspiring singer, seminary student—and had yet to find a pair that really fit.
I had the same nose-perpetually-buried-in-a-book childhood as most aspiring writers, but once I hit adolescence, reading lost its savor for me. In fifth grade, I tested into the gifted program and became the only black girl in my school’s microcosm of academic high achievers. This wasn’t really a big deal until a couple of years later when peer acceptance became the holy grail and I discovered that my African-American peers were suspicious of me because I spent the majority of my time in school with white kids.
Around this same time, the books assigned to us in Gifted Language Arts became more literary in nature. Gone were the days of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Encyclopedia Brown, and anything and everything written by Roald Dahl and Judy Blume. The Giver and Animal Farm, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, and Farenheit 451 were the books we were to read and dissect for theme and symbolism.
Frankly, back then I didn’t really connect with any of the books we were required to read, and as a result, they added to my sense of isolation. While I could appreciate the beauty of the English language and the way the authors laced words together, I struggled to engage in the actual stories because I could never seem to identify with the characters. As a matter of fact, studying books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men—books whose only characters of color were either escaped slaves or intellectual incompetents—while sitting in a classroom where I was the sole African American made for a very uncomfortable experience. I didn’t see myself in the books we were assigned, so no one else saw me either. Reading, which at one point had been this epic foray into magic and mystery and faraway places, became nothing more than another piece of drudgery to check off my homework list.
It wasn’t until the summer I turned twenty-three and hopped on that plane to Israel that I began to get a real grasp on the role of Story in the human experience. I spent that summer stepping into other people’s shoes. There were the shoes of a Palestinian Christian girl living in the West Bank who wasn’t allowed into Israel Proper without a permit, but faced insane amounts of harassment in her neighborhood because of her family’s chosen faith. There were the shoes of the Israeli soldier who’d been trained to view all Arabs as potential threats, but was so sickened by it he couldn’t wait to get out of the army so he could leave the country. There were the small shoes of the children in the Palestinian refugee camps training to be Martyrs for Allah because they felt it was their call in life. There were the shoes of the orthodox Jewish man whose entire family had been murdered in his home by Palestinian militants while they slept.
As I listened to these stories and made an attempt at empathy—putting myself in their proverbial shoe—my perspectives shifted. Life became less about right and wrong, good and bad, black and white, and more about complexity and nuance, the power of the human being to bring either calm or chaos into the lives of others and the world around them. Storytelling revealed itself as a means of getting people to listen without interrupting. Done well, it engages listeners/readers to the point where they’re completely oblivious to the shifts in worldview taking place as a result of stepping into a different perspective.
The stories I heard over that summer, like my own, were the ones I hadn’t encountered in my Language Arts classes. And they shook me. They changed the way I approach people with beliefs that differ from my own. They changed the way I voice my opinions. In a way, they cleaned the lens through which I view the world.
I discovered that once I put on all those different pairs of shoes, I wanted to share those shoes and their impact with others. I wanted to tell the stories that weren’t being told, the ones featuring diverse characters in non-stereotypical roles, the ones that blurred the line between “right” and “wrong”, the ones that reveal the humanity in those who are underrepresented or misunderstood. Since that summer I turned 23, I’ve reread most of the books that I was unable to connect with as a teen, and I’m happy to report that I quite enjoy them now that I’ve found the shoes for myself. The answer to my identity crisis was simple: I am a storyteller.
Now get those shoes off so I can give you a different pair to try on.