Anthony Bourdain was one of my favourite storytellers, but not just because he inspired me as a writer (which he did). He also had a very big, very real impact on my life.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to condense and articulate why, but I’ll do my best.
In my early twenties I still saw the world through a lens of all or nothing, right or wrong, black or white. Deep down I knew there was more to life — that the best parts were hidden in shades of grey — but I was afraid. Mostly of failing, of getting it wrong.
When I read Kitchen Confidential, followed soon by A Cook’s Tour, it was like Bourdain had come into my kitchen, pulled all the pots and pans out of the cupboards, and thrown them onto the floor like a tyrannical two year old.
But in a good way.
He dismantled all the preciousness I’d held about food and health, and spoke to the part of me that was dying to get out and taste life.
He invited me to roll back my rigidity, discard my perfectionism, and instead, get hungry. Hungry to eat, yes, but also for something more. His invitation was less like a restaurant reservation and something more akin to Captain Picard’s command, “let’s see what’s out there.”
In other words, a mighty big invitation.
In a world that prizes convenience and familiarity on one end of the spectrum, and a never-ending, flag-planting quest for “the best” on the other, Bourdain scoffed at both.
He helped me see that our own rules and sacred preferences can function like borders: to keep ourselves contained, and others out.
And he showed me an alternative. To put exploration over comfort. Experiences over certainty. Curiosity over judgment. Appreciation over curation.
And so, I made a choice. To be on the side, as best I could, of showing up and taking part in what the world has to offer. To connect with human beings without carrying around my own preconceived notions and judgements like one big, overloaded backpack.
When in doubt, to say yes. To go. To try. To taste.
Of course, I don’t do this (or anything) perfectly. In fact, his loss reminds me not to get too comfortable. But he showed me a different path — actually, endless paths — than the one I started on.
I want to celebrate what he gave me, because Bourdain did something that the best storytellers do. That is, he didn’t just give me his stories, he helped me rewrite my own.
And for that I’m grateful.
Anthony Bourdain was one of my favourite storytellers, but not just because he inspired me as a writer (which he did). He also had a very big, very real impact on my life.
A friend of mine recently asked me a really great question. It went something like this:
“I write a lot. But I feel like I haven’t found my authentic voice yet.
When I write, it often comes out sounding like other people. It doesn’t really feel like me.
How do I find my true voice? Any tips?”
I’ve been thinking about this question and, now that I’ve had time to reflect on it, thought I would answer it here.
If you’ve ever wondered whether your writing is really “authentic”, or if you’re struggling to find your true voice or style, here are my suggestions.
Tip #1: Accept that “youness” is not something you can hack.
Remember when you were a little kid and somebody (most likely your mom) told you to “just be yourself”?
And remember how that advice seemed utterly useless?
It’s great advice, of course. Being yourself is the best way to go through life. But that assumes, of course, that you know who “yourself” is.
And knowing yourself is something you really only get by living.
Writing is the same. Just like you can’t skip over growing up, you can’t skip over the time and experience required to find your voice.
So don’t try to jump to the end of the book. Take your time. Write the chapters one by one.
Tip #2: Reserve some writing solely for yourself.
Most of us write so that we can be read.
Whether it’s blogs, or novels, or marketing copy, the end goal is usually to have somebody else read it. (This is especially true if you’re a professional writer.)
But if you’re always writing for other people, your own voice is bound to get lost in the shuffle.
So whether you’re a seasoned pro or a brand-new beginner, I encourage you to do some writing that is just for you.
How do you do that? Have a journal or notebook that no one else is going to see. Make time in your day, even if it’s just 10 minutes, to write freely, uncensored, with no one looking over your shoulder.
Make this a regular practice. If not daily, as close as you can get.
Try not to judge yourself in this writing space. You want to give yourself room for as much honesty, experimentation and free-range creativity you can muster.
Tip #3: Read your stuff.
Look back every so often and take stock of what you’ve written. What’s in your journal? What does a year’s worth of blog posts or newsletters look like? Consider any professional writing you’ve done as well as the personal.
The point of this is not to judge. It’s not an assessment or critique. Rather, it’s to investigate.
For example, ask yourself:
- What are your favourite pieces of writing?
- Which ones feel natural or authentic?
- Which ones don’t?
When I look back at my own writing over the course of a year, I can usually find a couple pieces that feel too forced (likely they were things I thought I “should” write), and a couple pieces that are my favourites (they’re usually ones that I wrote most naturally, without over-thinking).
This review exercise can give you insight into your “authentic” voice. It may give you some ideas about what types of writing or creative activities to lean into, and which to do less of. And it may inspire you to do more of the things that help “you” come out in your writing.
Tip #4: Read all the things.
Remember that movie Uncle Buck, with John Candy?
It’s a great movie. It also contains a lot of swearing.
When it first came out, I watched it on VHS with my young cousin, who played with his Legos throughout. When the movie he was finished, I asked him what he was doing, as he moved his Legos from one spot to another.
Echoing the spicy new language he’d heard in the movie, my innocent young cousin answered, “I’m just going to move this shit over here.”
This is what happens when we listen and read. We naturally pick up the words, along with the overall style and flow. In other words, read a lot of one kind of writing, and you’re bound to mimic it, even if you don’t mean to.
As such, reading is probably the best way to improve your writing, second only to practicing writing itself. At the same time, if you don’t want to fall into the trap of accidentally absorbing someone else’s voice, mix it up. Read all kinds of writing, both fiction and non-fiction. And read in print sometimes; it changes how you absorb and interact with the work.
Actively and deliberately expand your literary and creative vocabulary.
Build an extensive inner library of words and ideas. The more diversity you have, the less likely you are to get stuck in somebody else’s style.
Tip #5 Be all your selves.
I love this quote by Joss Whedon:
“Don’t just be yourself. Be all your selves.”
Here’s the thing: there is not one “authentic” you. Not one authentic voice. Not one authentic story.
We don’t just have one true story of our lives, we have many.
We don’t just have one truth, we have many contradictory truths, lies, and somewhere-in-betweens that make us who we are.
We don’t just have one self to be, we have identities that are unfolding, evolving and surprising us all the time.
Trying to write with one “authentic voice” sounds like trying to pigeonhole yourself.
It sounds a lot like judgement.
So my final piece of advice is to give yourself freedom to write, in as many different voices and styles as you wish.
Experiment. Be bold and saucy and salty one day. Write tidily and refined the next.
Write with self-indulgent gusto once in a while. Edit with prudence later.
Hold back sometimes. Overdo it others. Get angry on the paper; then get forgiving.
Whoever you need to be, as a writer, in this moment, just be it. Say what you’ve got to say, write what you’ve got to write.
Take this moment and write like you.
Whoever you happen to be right now.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
Well, sometimes, so are a few words.
Just three or four words, in the right combination, have changed my life.
This is the power of a phrase.
I use phrases as cues. They help me focus, make decisions, and brave challenges; they help me shift back when I fall off-track. They give me clarity. They help me know myself.
They’re not mantras, exactly; I’m not standing in front of the mirror repeating them to myself, Stuart Smalley style. But they are powerful mental shortcuts.
A way of summarizing life’s weird, knotted bundles of knowledge into something I can remember.
I recently learned there’s a word for these phrases: heuristics. (Thanks, Christina Wodtke.)
I thought I’d share some of my favourite heuristics here. You’ll notice that many of these phrases have come from people who’ve inspired me.
As Christina pointed out in her article, “The dark secret of heuristics is they are hard to learn without living the lesson.”
Yet, other people’s words and phrases – sometimes uttered casually without expectation – have sometimes powerfully impacted my life. I’ve given them my own meaning. Feel free to make them your own.
10 phrases that have changed my life for the better
1. Use your light to help others find theirs.
Some years ago I sent a thank you card to my friend and coach Steph at IronLion Training, thanking her for her support during a difficult time. I told her it was as though she had seen a light in me, and helped me chase it.
In response, she sent me this:
The caption read: "Use your light to help others find theirs”.
That phrase — "Use your light to help others find theirs” — stuck with me. I thought, that’s exactly what I want to do.
And so I now use it as a guiding principle for my work. Every time I need to make a major decision, or I find myself getting off course, I come back to this guiding principle.
How can I use my light (my uniqueness and what I do best) to help others find theirs?
2. Love your life and it will love you back.
But it has been one of these most powerful, positive phrases in my life.
To me, “love your life” does not mean “enjoy” or “like” your life, the way we typically mean it. To me, in this context, love is a verb. An action.
It means actively investing in my own life – giving it my energy, enthusiasm and heart. It means doing the things that I believe in, that I value, and yes, that make me happy.
The more I lean into life, get really awake and actively participate in my own life, the better my life gets. Meaning, satisfaction, joy, possibility. The more I put into it, the more I get back.
This is the antidote to trudging, or slinking, or waiting the days away. It asks me to be active, and find the joy, each day. Don’t wait; put the love into my life today.
3. I fucking did that.
This is one of my favourites.
My dear friend Katelyn told me this one. She imagined a tombstone that read, “I fucking did that.”
What an exciting phrase. To embrace life’s big, crazy, fun, weird, unpredictable, shaking-with-fear challenges in earnest of collecting that badge of courage: I fucking did that.
This mantra pushes me out of my comfort zone, and encourages me to embrace the opportunities in my own life.
When you’re not sure you can do something, think about what it would be like to look back and say, “I fucking did that”.
I also use this to take a step back and look at what I’m up to. If I’ve got a list of “I fucking did that” going, I’m probably on a good track.
4. make your own.
This one came from my friend Krista Scott-Dixon, some years back when I was thinking of quitting my job.
I told Krista what I wanted in my work and she said, “I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but if that’s what you want, you’re probably going to have to make your own [work]."
In other words, no one was going to hand me the dream job/company/work I was after. I would have to create it myself.
I think these were the words I was waiting to hear; it was permission and a nudge to go ahead and make the thing I always wanted to see. Shortly after I quit my job and started my business, Storytelling with Heart.
This phrase is more than a job-quitting call-to-action though: it’s a reminder of the need to create the things we want to see in the world.
Want something to exist? Go make it.
Create, create, create. And do it your way. This is how this heuristic continues to inspire me and push me forward into action.
5. it doesn't have to be perfect.
I saw this graffito on the sidewalk a little while ago, and while it's so simple, it's made a difference to me.
I took a picture of it and it's now something I refer back to every day, disturbing my natural inner push towards being better, better, better. (My own tendencies are towards ‘not enough-ness’, though I have found some journaling strategies that help.)
When things feel too big, or scary, I remember: it doesn't have to be perfect.
The pressure valve releases. Everything becomes a bit more OK. I can proceed.
6. Why don’t you just tell me the movie you want to see?
Remember that Seinfeld episode where Kramer takes over Movie-fone?
For some reason he pretends to be the automated service delivering movie listings.
Here’s how the dialogue goes:
KRAMER: Hello and welcome to Movie phone. If you know the name of the
movie you'd like to see, press one.
GEORGE: Come on. Come on.
KRAMER: Using your touch-tone keypad, please enter the first three
letters of the movie title, now.
(George presses 3 keys)
KRAMER: You've selected ... Agent Zero? If that's correct, press one.
KRAMER: Ah, you've selected ... Brown-Eyed Girl? If this is correct,
(George looks baffled)
KRAMER: Why don't you just tell me the name of the movie you've
This is really silly but also genius, if you think about it.
How many times in our life are we speaking circuitously, robotically, trying to follow formulas or scripts rather than just asking for what we want or saying what we really mean?
I use this all the time in writing. Whenever I feel stuck I just repeat this heuristic to myself and write exactly what I want to say. I don’t try to make it smart or special or worry about what other people will think. I just write the damn thing.
This is an excellent phrase to use if you find yourself having trouble writing, and if your writing tends to fall on the over-complicated or flowery side of the spectrum.
It’s also useful for life.
Instead of overthinking, just be honest about what you want. Tell yourself what you actually mean. Tell others what you actually mean.
Clear out all the clutter. And tell the truth.
7. go find something else to do.
A friend in high school came from a very nice, very politically correct, intelligent family. The kind of family who played co-operative board games instead of competitive sports.
When their family dog came around to beg for treats or interfere with dinner, he wasn’t told “no,” or “go away,” or “bad dog.” (That wouldn’t be very nice.)
He was politely told to “go find something else to do.”
I now use this refrain to stop myself from wasting mental energy, and getting caught up in old, negative thought patterns.
What does a waste of mental energy look like?
For me, it might mean worrying about what someone thinks of me, or trying to chase approval. It might mean mentally criticizing or judging others, or feeling hurt about something someone did or didn’t do. It might mean ruminating on old memories or experiences. I might also mean getting too caught up in my own fantasy land.
Basically, it’s the kind of thinking that pulls me back into old stories that don’t do me, or anyone else, any good.
Instead, I turn my attention to the next thing, the positive thing.
I go find something else to do.
8. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
This gem comes from my friend Kerry, who’s been saying it for years.
She doesn’t save it for literal uses: every time something is good, you can bet Kerry is announcing, “it’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted!”
I love this. It reminds me to enjoy life and not hold back.
Another version of this might be Cheryl Strayed’s phrase, “Recklessly Optimistic.”
Life won’t punish you for enjoying it. Be hyperbolic with your appreciation and enjoyment. Dig into the good stuff – celebrate it, love it, laugh at it.
(Kerry also says, “I love my life” whenever anything good happens. And when something good happens to you, she says, “I love your life!” I love this phrase too. It shows joy and appreciation of other people’s happiness and good fortune, and reminds me to do the same, while enjoying what I have.)
9. Get over it.
I’m sure our parents all said this to each of us over the years, but what echoes in my mind is actually a bit from the TV series Friends. (Apparently 90s TV had a big effect on me.)
It goes like this:
PHOEBE: Wait, (grabs guy) you know what, I got a little story. When I was in Junior High School I went through this period where I thought I was a witch. And there was this guidance counselor who said something to me, that I think will help you a lot. He said okay, 'you're not a witch you're just an average student.' See what I'm saying?
GUY: Not really.
PHOEBE: Um, well, get over it.
So, I mean you, you just seem to be a really nice guy, you know. Don't be so hard on yourself okay.
I think this advice, while seeming trite and even a bit rude, is actually fantastic sometimes.
Because sometimes, we just need to put the thing down and move the hell on.
I use this one on myself when my mind gets ruminating over something or worrying about something useless.
It’s a way of gently mocking myself and putting things in perspective. This gives me a break and allows me to simply move on to something else.
So really, it’s kind of nice.
(That doesn’t give you permission to say mean things of course, to yourself or anyone else. If you’re using this one, make sure it comes from a good place. And stays in your own head.)
10. Live the story you want to tell.
I didn’t make this up and I can’t attribute it to anyone, but it really is a great set of words to live by.
For one thing, it reminds us that life is ours to make. We craft where we go. There are many things we can’t control, but the story is ours to imagine.
In particular, it reminds me to think ahead: how will I want to look back on this? If I am telling the story years from now, what will I want to say I did? How will I want to say I participated? What will I want to say about my life, my adventures. What would I want my memoir to include?
This may seem like a big exercise in self-reflection but it’s also just a small nudge to instruct my actions.
Do I speak up in this moment or stay silent?
Do I take the trip or wait another year?
Do I give something a shot or hold back?
Do I let myself be defeated or do I get back up?
We are constantly writing our own stories.
We might as well make them good.
So I’m about to read a book about a sport I like, about an athlete I admire.
The book is a rock climbing memoir, and it’s co-written by the athlete and by a professional writer/editor.
At the beginning of the book, the sport of free soloing (a style of climbing), is described as: “a man (or woman), with only rock shoes on his feet and chalk on his fingertips for better purchase, against the cliff.”
Notice that “woman” is in brackets.
Now this curious grammatical choice has nothing to do with women’s participation in the sport of climbing — which is significant — and has everything to do with the inherent assumptions of the editor/author.
Brackets suggest an afterthought. A rarity. An exception to the rule.
Suddenly, I feel excluded. Talked down to. Omitted.
This language and punctuation says: This book is not for me. It is for men. For male climbers.
I feel like putting it down. No, I feel like throwing it off the next cliff I climb.
And I’m only on page 8.
Think I’m over-reacting? This tiny little grammatical choice (not to mention the use of “he” and “his” rather than the gender neutral “they”) speaks volumes.
So here’s the lesson. For all writers and editors, whether you’re professional or not: do not underestimate the effect of choices like this on your reader.
I am not obsessive about grammar. I encourage people to write rather than worrying about getting it perfect. I encourage people to focus on clarity and communication rather than grammatical nuances.
But this, right here, is when grammar (and punctuation and word choice) matters. When you’re accidentally cutting people out.
If this is something you care about — i.e. you don’t want your writing to be exclusive and you do want it to engage all readers — work with an editor who is attuned to these kinds of things. They don’t have to be a professional; they can be a friend or colleague who just really ‘gets it’.
Preferably, work with someone from a different perspective than you, whether that’s a different gender, industry, age, ethnicity, life experience, etc. They can help you see your work in a different light.
Tell them that you want help identifying and tempering your own bias. Invite them to challenge you. Then be willing to be challenged, to question your assumptions about who you’re writing for and what their perspective will be.
And most of all, never treat a human being like a bracket.
When we think about writing, we often think about the future.
Will I remember this time in my life? What stories will I have to pass on to my kids? How do I leave a legacy or a record? And so on.
But recording the details of our lives can also help us now. It can allow us to reframe our day-to-day, and help us feel a little more satisfied with the sometimes chaotic, sometimes mundane experience of living.
Let me explain, starting with a question.
How do you know when you have done enough?
When it comes to the end of the day, how do you know you’ve worked hard enough? Done enough for your family?
How do you know when you’ve made enough money? Achieved enough?
What does enoughness look like in a day? A month? A year? A lifetime?
In reflecting on these types of questions, there is one thing that gives me some surprising insights into my own story of “enoughness”.
It’s my line-a-day journal.
This is a 5-year journal that includes just enough space for a line or two each day.
It not only offers me the chance to write a simple summary of the day, it also allows me a chance to look back and reflect: How do the days add up? What does a year look like? How do you measure, measure a year?
This journal gives me comfort. Because when you break things down, day by day, you can plainly see that not every day is “big”.
Not every day is momentous and grand.
Not every day is a good day or a productive day.
Not only are most days far from perfect, they are not always “progressive” either.
I feel that there is so much emphasis on being productive and making progress in our culture, and that’s not always a good thing. Or realistic. Or human. The problem with that phrase “progress not perfection” is that it implies we must always be moving forward, as though in a straight line of constant improvement.
This is not how real life works.
Some days are rather boring.
Some days are simply lived.
What’s more, my line-a-day journal reveals that some of the best moments of the year were small, little surprises.
They were acts of trust and optimism: choosing to believe that, after a bad day, tomorrow might be better.
They were little moments of delight and simple pleasures: Throwing off a to-do list to take a walk. Baking chocolate chip cookies and eating them in bed with a glass of milk.
They were sometimes the part you would think unpleasant: Running through the airport to catch a tight connection. Strapping on a weighted backpack and my hiking boots and walking up and down a steep hill under the stiff sunlight in order to train for my hiking trip.
Even the biggest adventures bore the smallest surprises that sometimes outweighed the big stuff: hitchhiking and hearing a stranger’s story was not something I planned to do and definitely not in the Oahu guidebook. (Though “A hitchiker’s guide to Hawaii” has a nice ring to it.) Yet it wound up being one of my most memorable moments from a trip I took.
My line-a-day journal tells me:
An anxious day does not mean an anxious life.
A boring, or unproductive day does not mean nothing is happening.
A day full of “wasted” time does not mean a wasted life.
It’s not just the joyous, ecstatic moments that count.
That said, paying attention and savouring the little things has made all the difference.
Recording the small but wondrous things helps.
It reminds me that the little things really are special, and worth enjoying. It reminds me not rush too fast in pursuit of more, and to appreciate what is here.
It reminds that while in progress, “something” often feels like “nothing.”
Movement often feels like stillness.
And so, when it comes to storytelling, I encourage you to write about the details. Not just for later, but for now.
Whether it’s in your journal or for public consumption. Look closely. Describe the little things.
Somehow, it’s those mundane little things that connect as humans.
Just like in life, it’s the little things that make the story.
Do you wish you were a little braver?
Like many of us, maybe you wish you could tell your story, loud and proud...
... or just speak up more and do the right thing...
... or be an inspiration to your kids and show them what it really means to be a strong, courageous person.
I’ve been thinking about this idea of bravery lately and thought I'd share a little story with you. Here goes.
When I was twenty years old, I was awake for heart surgery.
The doctor encouraged me not to have a general anesthetic. He said they’d give me something to calm me down and told me that I would likely fall asleep. I’m not sure whether my response was due to bravery or just misguided bravado, but I agreed.
Turns out, I did not fall asleep. Instead, I paid attention.
I listened as the doctors and nurses gossiped and chatted while they worked. I watched the monitors that showed my cardiac activity, and noticed when they showed signs of trouble. I peeked at the cardiologist and saw my blood. I asked for more freezing when I felt pain. And I will freely admit, I cried. I cried most of the time and I held a nurse’s hand while I waited for it all to pass.
Now, let me add that for most of my childhood I had a phobia of hospitals, and surgery in particular. Remember that game, Operation? I couldn’t walk through a toy store without being desperately afraid that I might catch a glimpse of it.
While this fear softened as I got older, surgery was still scary enough. So, you know, kudos to 20 year old me for committing to having surgery, and going through with it.
Here’s the thing, though: when I look back, I don’t necessarily think of this act as particularly brave. I was just doing what had to be done. I made a choice, and followed through.
For me, the really brave stuff came later.
Years later. When I stopped keeping this story secret, and started rewriting it.
What was my ‘brave’?
Brave was letting go of the old story about what my heart meant and how it defined me.
Brave was trying new things, things that directly rubbed up against those old narratives.
Brave was deciding to be OK with my own not-OKness; embracing all the ways I loved my heart, and all the ways I didn’t.
Brave was not just sharing my story, but committing to evolving it, rewriting it, and discovering new chapters.
Brave was really, truly, being me.
And so, I have a question for you. Several, actually...
--> What is the brave but scary thing you have been waiting to do?
--> What is the story you’re telling yourself that is holding you back from doing it?
And most importantly...
What if your time to be brave was right now?
If you’re in Toronto, and you want to get your BRAVE on, check this out! My good friend Steph Iron Lioness and I have teamed up to create a bravery worksop just for girls and women.
Check out all the details below:
Meanwhile, thank you all for being brave, showing up, and sharing your stories.
I believe in your brave.
I don’t know about you, but I see an awful lot of headlines and advertisements and social media statuses all designed to tell me exactly how somebody will make me rich.
Perhaps I should have titled this article, “How I earned $100k from my coaching business in a week with no prior experience or talent.” Maybe it would have gotten more clicks.
Of course, it would be entirely fake. But it would be in keeping with the modern gold rush.
Let me explain.
I was lucky enough to visit the Yukon this summer. In that time, I learned a little gold rush history.
Stuff like this: Between the years of 1896 and 1899, approximately 100,000 people stormed the Klondike in pursuit of getting rich. Ultimately, between 30,000 and 40,000 of them actually made it there. Meanwhile, they tackled incredibly dangerous, icy, bone-chilling mountain passes and murderous rivers, all with heavy supplies strapped to their backs and no real mountaineering equipment or skill.
To put it simply: many people died. In some pretty terrible ways.
It seems absurd now: people abandoning their families — and their sanity — and many ultimately dying in horrific conditions, all for the prospect of striking it rich.
Greed made them go blind.
As crazy as it seems, when you think about it, maybe the gold rush never really ended.
We’re not climbing mountains in perpetual cold and darkness (well, most of us aren’t), but in a weird way it seems like we’re living in our own, modern gold rush, under the new economy’s promise of “more”.
We want to make more money, and faster, and preferably through “passive income”. We compete for more followers — whatever that means — and more chances to sell. Whatever we are making, it seems, it’s definitely not enough.
I see a lot of lists these days, and while I clearly like a good list, it also seems that most of them are about how to make more money.
Well, this is the opposite.
Here are 7 things you can do right now that probably won’t make you rich in cash (but just might be worth doing anyway.)
1. Listen to an older person’s story.
Older people usually have more, and better stories to tell. Some of them you may have heard before; listen anyway.
When someone is older they might need a little more time to their story — their stories tend not to come out in 144 characters. Again, listen anyway.
With certain folks, you might suspect the details have been exaggerated, or the truth twisted a little bit. There’s something good in all of that. Just be quiet for a while and pay attention. Get lost in whatever story they have to tell.
2. Get lost.
Speaking of getting lost, sometimes you go down a dirt road and it goes nowhere. Sometimes you get a beautiful view and sometimes you don’t. But how does it feel to get lost? To take a detour or go a little further?
Try it out. Sometimes you come up with the best stories this way.
3. Wash dishes.
I don’t usually have to wash dishes at home because I am lucky enough have a dishwasher. But when I was at the Yukon, in a cabin, water was a precious commodity and we didn’t have any power. We boiled water to warm it for washing. Washing took more time.
This was a good thing as it forced me to slow down and just do the thing. No podcasts and no TV. Just a cup of tea and a little job to do.
It feels good to just do a task and not rush sometimes.
4. Get up before everyone else.
Not to get more work done. Just to be up.
What happens when you’re standing outside, in the cool air, while the sun comes up? What does it feel like to be in the quiet, with the stirrings of morning just starting? What goes on in the moments when you are just there, not yet doing anything, not yet racing to attack the day in pursuit of progress?
Here I might quote Henry David Thoreau: “The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour… some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.”
Or I might just say: I think it feels rather nice.
5. Pet cats
I like to go for walks and stop to pet cats. You can pet dogs too, if their owners let you. Of course, you only get to pet the cats if the cats want you to.
There’s definitely no money in this because if there was, I’d already be rich.
Nonetheless, no matter how busy I am, I will always stop to pet cats.
6. Read a book
Not the self-help book or the get-rich-quick book or the business book or the guru book.
Read a novel. Or a memoir by a person you never knew very much about. Or a book that makes you laugh. Or poetry. Or a comic book.
Do it because it feels good to be told a story.
Do it also because it takes time to read books. You can’t just skim them like you might be doing with this article right now. They demand to be read, word by word. This is a good thing.
Reading might make you smarter or contribute to self-improvement but a good book isn’t likely to make you rich (even the ones that tell you they will). They’re worth reading anyway.
7. Tell your story.
Okay, this one might actually help you achieve your business goals. A good story — told truthfully, and told well — can help you market and sell your services, establish a brand, and stand out, etcetera etcetera.
But then again, if you’re telling your story purely for the purpose of getting rich, it’s probably not all that great of a story. (Just guessing.)
Besides, not all stories have that sort of purpose. Some are there to show the world who you are.
Some are there just to be stories.
So if you have a story to tell, let go of the goal. Tell it from the heart and see what happens.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll strike gold.
This may be one of my favourite stories I've told.
I remember writing it 2016, while staring at the three sisters mountain range, in Canmore, Alberta. The memory brings me peace. And what I wrote resonates with me because lately, I've felt this need very deeply:
The need for silence.
That need might resonate with you, too. So I'm sharing this story again today — along with my permission (not that you need it) to seek out a little silence for yourself.
Does your story need some silence?
This week, I’ll be camping and hiking in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies.
Mountain backcountry is a great place for storytelling. Not just because we’ll have a campfire or two. Not just because of the adventure. (Previous reports of me fighting off a bear with my left hook were greatly exaggerated.)
But because of the quiet.
Suddenly, amid the power of mountains that are so much bigger than you, something inside falls silent.
Words are noticeably absent.
And that is a very good thing.
The best stories can come from meeting our own speechlessness.
If you’re struggling to put words to something that feels wordless, if you're trying to talk about something that feels indescribable, one answer may be... to wait.
Don’t rush to tame the feelings with your words. Just be there. Meet the story as it is happening.
Sit with a quiet so powerful that it lays your mind down like a sleepy child for a nap.
Be with the beauty around you that is so sweet and gentle it hurts.
Hold the pain like a still object in your hands.
Feel that love that has no business being described.
Speechlessness is a very good thing for stories because it means something is happening. In time, the words will settle within you. In time, you’ll tell them. In time, you’ll share and make something marvellous.
But for now, just be here.
Because stories don’t exist without someone there to live them first.
"Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression: they exist where a word has never intruded." -- R.M. Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I am a fan of stories. I believe they do a lot of good in the world.
Specifically, I care about your story. You know, the one you’ve been meaning to tell… the one that you believe could help somebody… the one that’s been stirring inside you all this time, but you’ve been hesitant to write about… because it hurts.
Unfortunately, many of us carry stories within us that are about painful things.
I’m talking about those Big Bads. Things like trauma and shame and grief. Experiences of racism, oppression, abuse, violence, and other mixed bags of things we never wanted, and don’t deserve.
These are the stories we carry around with us like secret shopping bags, loaded down with stuff we would never buy, and wish we could return.
Do I show you what’s in my bag? Do I lay it all out on the kitchen table for you to see? Or do I just keep carrying it around with me?
Maybe you want to tell your story. Maybe you think it could help others, do some good for the world. Maybe it would help you, be cathartic.
But maybe it will hurt.
And I think you’re probably right. I think that telling your story can be empowering, and can often help others, and can feel really great.
But it can also hurt.
And that’s what I want to talk about today: How to write the stories that hurt.
Sometimes we think we’re “over it” until we try to write about it.
When I wrote my heart speech I agreed to share this thing that I used to keep secret, because I assumed I was “over it”.
No big deal, I thought.
Until I tried to put it into words. All the stuff I thought was long past — previous hurts and shames and memories and conflicting emotions — popped up again as if to say, “Hey there. It’s all your old shit. All the stuff you thought you solved. Still here.”
Once I put the speech together and shared it, I felt lighter and more free than I ever had before. But the process of getting there was unexpectedly emotional.
And I’ll be honest, I still have some stories I’m not ready to tell.
In some cases, I’ve tried. One day I sat down on a park bench to write some personal stories about some traumatic things that I thought were “healed enough”. I thought it was time and the stories could be useful and instructive.
And then all the words sailed right out of me like one big “whoosh”. As I pushed onwards, trying to write anyway, I felt a lot of things I’d worked hard not to feel.
I kept my words right where I put them — in that notebook. I stopped writing about the subject and I didn’t publish what I wrote. Maybe I will someday — just not right now.
I’m telling you this to say: if writing hurts, I get it.
And I’d like to express my sincere appreciation for all the brave people who are sharing their stories in the spirit of healing, helping others and making the world a better place.
Based on my experiences and observations, here are some considerations that may help when writing about things that are, well, hard to write about.
1. You get to decide when you are ready.
I think about it like this: you have an opportunity to tell your story but not a responsibility. It’s your story and you get to decide when and if you’re ready to share it, how you share it, and in what forums.
Some stories need more time to gestate. If you, or your story, isn’t ready yet, that’s OK. Especially if it feels unsafe.
Take a good look: there’s a difference between staying inside your comfort zone, and being in unsafe territory. Can you stretch yourself to step outside of your comfort zone a little, without venturing into unsafe territory?
2. You can choose how to tell your story.
How you share your story is up to you. What format feels good and expressive to you? Essays, poetry, painting, collage, video, zines, dance, and anything else you can think of all count. If your story is hard to tell, you may find that another art form feels better than writing.
You also get to decide what you do and don’t include in your story. After all, you’re not on trial; you get to set the parameters. What feels right and true for you? What is enough to get the point across? What parts of your story will help others or inspire positive change? Again, you get to decide what to include.
3. Write for yourself first.
It’s hard enough to write for a public audience about anything, let alone something that is uncomfortable or personally challenging.
I suggest giving yourself permission to write for yourself, first. Tell yourself: I’m just going to write this thing and if I want to throw it away after or burn it or never look at it again, I can.
Now, hopefully your story won’t wind up as a pile of ashes. But it’s never helpful to write with an imaginary person leaning over our shoulder telling us that what we’re writing is crap.
I mean, that imaginary person is probably going to show up anyway, but if you tell yourself that you’re writing just for you (at least for now) they’re more likely to quiet down.
Once you’re finished, then decide if you want to take the next step to share it. If you like, at that stage, you can edit accordingly.
4. Prepare for the emotional energy tax man.
Writing about difficult, personal things can bring up a lot of painful emotions and sap your energy.
It’s still worth doing, but it’s best to be prepared. I encourage fellow writers to budget in recovery time (therapy session, self-care practices, or just plain down time) if they are tackling a really heavy subject. That why you’re not blindsided by it, and you have some support systems in place and time blocked off to steady yourself if you feel wiped out by the experience.
To be clear, writing doesn’t always feel this way: it can be uplifting, fun, and energizing. But sometimes it’s also tiring, or hard, and that’s OK too.
5. Take your time.
Lots of writing takes time to get ‘right’. Feel free to do it in stages, especially if you’re covering a big subject, and want to write for a public audience.
If it takes hours, or days or weeks or months or however long it takes to tell your story, that’s OK. Keep chipping away at it, in whatever method feels right for you.
6. Look at the story through a different lens.
Don’t feel obligated to write the story with grave seriousness. Looking at the story through different lenses may help you find new creative ways to express and understand your story.
For example: can you find the heroism? The meaning? The humour? Is there room for personal style, flair, even silliness?
Remember, you are allowed to express yourself in different ways. Let it be creative.
Now, more than ever, the world needs your stories.
Your experiences, your ideas, and your truth — it all matters.
To all survivors of the bad stuff and fighters for the good stuff, I want to say: I see you, I hear you.
Thank you for sharing your story.
I recently went through some old boxes of mine that contained photos, various memorabilia, and journals.
From my 8th grade journal, I noticed this little nugget of wisdom, which I had written on New Year’s Eve when I was 13.
My note-to-self instructs me to do two things:
1. Try not to worry too much.
Solid advice. Followed by...
2. Try not to screw everything up.
I laughed pretty hard at this. I'm still laughing.
Um, kinda hard not to worry when you’re petrified of screwing everything up, isn’t it?
Yet, days later, I have to admit I’m still reflecting on what I wrote. I think there’s some interesting guidance hidden in here.
Here's what I think we can learn from this.
Idea #1: Standard advice like “don’t worry too much” (along with things like, “let it go,” and “be nice to yourself”) is useless, unless…
...we change how we think about ourselves and our lives.
Oh, little Cam. Feeling like everything would fall apart without constant vigilance.
It’s laughable now, but poignant. Maybe you can relate to feeling this way when you were younger -- or right now.
On the one hand, we want to relax a bit, and enjoy life. But it's so easy to get caught up in all the other messages telling us we also need to work harder, make more money, get fitter, and try to control every variable we face. On top of it all, we're supposed to be happy. Many of us feel bad for feeling bad.
I've learned that this goal of worrying LESS only comes with doing other things MORE.
In order to believe it’s OK to screw up, we need to trust ourselves more. We need to believe in our own resilience. We need to know that mistakes are recoverable.
And, rather than focusing on what we might lose, we need to focus more on how we can grow. The opportunities. The adventures. The possibilities that are on the other side of worry.
Idea #2: It’s OK to lower the bar.
Actually, if you think about it, “try not to screw up” isn’t terrible advice, if we rephrase it a bit.
Maybe the bar doesn’t always need to be set to ‘awesome’ or ‘excellent’ or ‘crushing it’ or whatever code for success is used these days.
What if we replaced it with goals like...
Just do your best. Try not to make things worse. See if you can make them a little bit better, even.
That’s actually a compassionate -- dare I say creative -- point of view.
Idea #3: Go ahead and screw up.
This is the biggest and most important message, to me.
But those “screw-ups” have brought me some pretty amazing rewards. Growth. Self-knowledge. Freedom. And, funny enough, I worry a whole lot less.
So here’s what I’d like to tell my younger self:
Your life is not a delicate egg that you have been entrusted with to keep safe and precious.
It’s an opportunity to live.
Don’t think so much about worrying, just get out there and do. Get invested in what you’re doing. Love it. Play with it. Get excited about it.
Try things. All kinds of things; even the stuff you think you’re no good at, or you’re not sure you’ll like. Trying things is fun. It’s courageous. It’s adventurous. It’s how we learn. It’s life.
Embrace a growth mindset. Enjoy the process of learning. Let it be fun -- even the failures.
Participate. Put your hand up. Share your ideas. Take a guess if you don’t know.
Screw up a little. Learn from it.
Screw up a lot. Learn even more.
Go on adventures. Skin your knees. Get off course sometimes. You’ll have to work at it, but trust me: sometimes you have to get lost in order to find your way home.
Believe in your own resilience. You have more than you know.
Embarrass yourself once in a while. A little embarrassment never hurt anybody.
Make mistakes. Make meaning out of them.
So yeah, go ahead and screw up.
In the end, the screw-ups make for better stories anyway.
When things seem barren and hopeless, we have grounds for creativity.
We are faced with a terrifying question: what will you make from this?
This is the real question. It is a scary question, a demanding, open-ended one; it requires us to wrestle, to reflect, to look inwards, but most of all, to imagine.
It requires us to look outwards at the landscape before us and say: what can I create here? What can I put back in this space? What can I give? What can I leave behind?
Emptiness, loss, fear -- these are a blank canvas looking back at us and asking, what will you create?
This is not a call for reckless reaction, it is a call to make something new, to bring something forward, to wrestle with the experience of creativity.
The more that things feel dark, confused, lost, and lonely, the more creativity is needed.
When we want to look back, retreat, sink our feet into our own stuckness, creativity demands that we look forward. It nudges us towards newness.
Creativity is not a luxury. And inspiration is not a special gift delivered to a special few.
These things don't grow out of ideal conditions -- they grow out of the dirt.
Inspiration is not an experience of perfection.
It is not a moment when things are clean and neat, when you know just what to do.
It’s exactly the opposite.
Inspiration is a question that needs to be asked, a problem that needs to be solved, a step that needs to be taken even though you don’t know where it leads.
Inspiration is a dare.
It dares us to move forward into creativity, even when we don’t know what we’re making yet.
Will you accept?
This is a story for everyone who gets off course sometimes. If you find yourself taking the “scenic route”, or stuck on a detour, or if you believe that the good stuff is worth going out of your way for, this is for you.
“Wow, that’s far.”
In the course of conversation, I hear this a lot.
In comparison to where I live, apparently the gym I go to “is far”, the butcher I shop at “is far”, the activities and sport facilities I attend are “far”, where I choose to walk to (rather than drive), “is far”.
Let me be clear: I live in a big city. Nothing is actually that far, at least by Canadian standards. This is not driving for hours on a country road. This is taking the effort to travel -- typically by foot and/or public transit -- to places in the city that I deem special.
Of course, all these things could be closer.
I could just go to the grocery store right by house, the gym a couple blocks away.
But what people really mean, when they say this, is that where I go is not convenient.
Convenience -- the thing that is closest, fastest and most direct -- is generally considered better.
This assumption -- that quicker and more convenient is somehow better -- has got me thinking.
Why is the fastest route prized?
Is efficiency and saving time really the ultimate goal?
And most importantly: What is the value in travelling, taking detours, checking out side trails and taking the longer route?
I’ve learned that sometimes we go the extra mile deliberately, sometimes accidentally. Sometimes the extra mile takes us somewhere special. Sometimes it is merely a detour.
But sometimes it leads to something more.
“An unexplored trail is an opportunity wasted.”
Last summer I was on an ambitious backpacking trip that had me, along with a guide and a small group of fellow backpackers, trekking from campsite to campsite in the mountains. Because of the distances we needed to hike each day, we couldn’t stop for too long at any one break.
We took in the scenery, but we also had a schedule to keep.
We took turns leading the group. During my turn to lead, I faced a fork in the road. One of the paths looked slightly less groomed, but interesting. Is it possible this forked path was also a viable trail?
I started down the path.
Turns out, it led nowhere.
Instead of complaining about doubling back, Nathan, the guide, simply said, “a trail unexplored is an opportunity wasted.”
The daily opportunity -- aka, are you wasting your time?
In my daily life, I tend to think of my time spent “en route” as opportunities.
I cross the city -- sometimes by foot, often by help of public transit -- to get to where the good stuff is.
I travel to meet people where they are at, because they are wonderful people and it is worth it to be with them, to share in what they have to offer. I am lucky to live in a city with opportunities like this.
But I do not treat this time -- this ‘in between’, transient time, linking me from place to place -- as wasted.
I travel because traveling itself is of value. Even when it's just from one part of the city to another.
When I walk, I get ideas. I write in my head. Things settle for me. Sometimes I listen to podcasts and I get more ideas, I learn, and I laugh. If I’m on the subway, I read or write, sometimes doing some of my best work.
Some truly wonderful moments in my life have taken place walking to the subway. That’s because these short walks, these little interruptions to my day, give me a sense of reprieve and observation. They allow me some perspective. These breaks have led me to feel a sense of celebration and joy in what would otherwise be an ordinary day.
This is not to say I wander aimlessly all day long. I, too, want to move fast. I want to be productive; I work hard to make my time count.
But wandering off course is good too.
Sometimes you even have to get a little bit lost in order to get to where you’re going.
The detours make the story
I interview and listen to many different people of different walks of life, and it seems to me that our best stories come from our detours.
The most interesting, successful, fascinating people have had multiple detours in their lives. Their careers and successes are not just one straightforward path; they are winding, sometimes with strange curves, wild ups and down, sometimes dead ends and surprising detours.
I’ve learned: if we jump to the end of a story, we don’t really have a story.
A story is a quest, a process, a series of steps. It’s made up of the in-between times, the travels, the waits, the returns, the circuitous steps that make up progress. The story is the wandering that leads to arrival.
In other words, as the cliché goes, it really is about the journey.
Getting lost and wasting time in South Africa
My husband and I traveled to South Africa for a very special, bucket-list sort of trip.
On a trip where each day feels like precious time, we completely wasted our last day.
We drove for what wound up being hours without actually doing anything. Not ideal, especially considering our journey home would take 32 hours.
We were trying to find hiking trails -- first in the mountains and then in the dunefields. But in each case we found we were without the right permits and we didn’t have enough cash. We were unprepared, and going on the hopes that things would somehow work out. So we drove. Up into the mountains. The drive getting longer and longer, steeper and steeper, curvier and curvier.
The mountains were lush and green. Our ears popped from the sudden altitude. Monkeys interrupted the twisting road.
Ultimately the road went nowhere. We couldn’t hike, were turned away. We had to drive back down.
But in the meantime -- oh, what a view.
We got out of the car and looked down at how high we were. The rolling hills and slopes stretched out below us. Where we started was just a tiny speck in the distance.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s far”.