On my flight up to Oregon for the Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was in a jam- packed plane in an aisle seat. At the window sat a young man with a nose ring, tattoos, and a leather jacket. He had no carry-on luggage, no book, no magazine, no water bottle, no food. I got the sense that he was on a journey of some kind of sadness – and I immediately began to imagine what that might be: a trip to see an ailing friend? To make amends for some egregious error? I instantly decided to nod and smile and say nothing to him, because in that situation what I would most want is to be left alone. I thought, in other words, I had him figured out. I thought I had the whole story.
But story is never what we see on the outside.
Suddenly, the person occupying the middle seat arrived – a large, overweight, 60-something woman in a tunic covered with flowers. In one hand, she held a cup of Starbucks coffee and in the other, an overstuffed tote bag. She reached over to the man at the window with her coffee cup and said, “Hold this, will you, Hon?”
My whole body bristled at her presumptuousness and her rudeness. We live in times of such public tension and angst, and her cluelessness felt to me like a portent of something dangerous. I wanted to say something to protect the sad man from her assault, which was verbal, physical (she took up a lot of space) and psychic, but couldn’t imagine what those words would be, so I said nothing.
She wedged herself into the seat and turned to retrieve her coffee. “You headed home?” she asked the sad man.
Again, I wanted to speak up for him – to say, “Can’t you see that he’s sad? Leave him alone.”
But to my surprise, he answered her. He was indeed going home to visit his dad, whom he hadn’t seen in years. The sad man then asked the flower-clad woman where she was going, and she revealed that she had just up and bought a house in Oregon to start a new life, because her old life had fallen apart. They talked about family, about the price of real estate, about the tough task of starting over.
The man, it turned out, was a musician. He carefully explained to the flower-clad woman the style of indie rock he played, and she, improbably, mentioned a popular band she liked that played a similar style of music.
The man, it turned out, was a motorcycle rider – the only way to get around in LA, as far as he was concerned. The woman, improbably, mentioned that she had recently been in a Harley store, and she spoke about what beautiful machines they were.
By the time the plane took off, the sad man was talking about the trouble he was having with his girlfriend and the flower-clad woman was helping him sort it out, with beautiful compassion. I pretended to read my Fast Company magazine with Beyoncé on the cover ( “What Every Business Can Learn From Beyonce”), but mostly, I was listening to these two people form an intimate connection out of thin air.
Where had that connection come from? From each of them being vulnerable, and risking to share their true selves – nothing more and nothing less.
This, as it happens, is one of the things that is at the core of Beyoncé’s genius. As the article says, “A big reason Lemonade has connected is that it makes fans feel closer to Beyonce – like they’re part of her struggles rather than outside observers.”
It is also the genius of Adele, another blockbuster performer, whom the Los Angeles Times profiled because she was performing at the Staples Center: “What kept the performance from feeling mawkish was the pinprick intensity of Adele’s singing. You never got the impression she was describing vague sensations, but rather that she was reliving specific experiences…. Even “Sweetest Devotion,” an account of the motherly affection she said “blew my mind,” sounded a bit like the first song ever written about that familiar topic -- that’s how deep Adele was getting inside the music.”
It is also the genius of the way NBC packages the Olympics, with their old formula that never gets stale: let us see the humble beginnings of the athlete, the sacrifices made, the goals set, and then let us see them either win or lose in real time, so we can see the rawness of desire at the heart of both victory and defeat, so we can see inside.
It’s the rawness we come for. I mean, did you SEE that video of first-time Olympian Ryan Held who wept on the medal stand next to Michael Phelps? He could not contain his emotion and we could not look away, because how often do we let ourselves feel that deeply? The answer is not very often. We’re too busy protecting ourselves from the intensity of those emotions, putting walls and narratives up to keep them at bay, just trying to get through the day without falling apart like that.
But we all fall apart, all the time, and all any of us really wants is to know we are not the only ones to do so. All we want is a connection to other equally vulnerable human beings – even if we are getting it from a stranger on a plane, though flickering images on a screen, or in the pages of a book.
If you are writing something – anything you want people to read – that is your job: to create something that lets us in, that takes us beyond the surface to the real feeling underneath it all.
My seatmates in row 27 did a crossword puzzle together from the back page of the in-flight magazine. They shared their perceptions about the difference between a hashish high and a mushroom high. They exchanged vacation tips, dog photos, and packets of pretzels. Before they walked away and back into their lives, they hugged each other.
I’m sure that neither of them realized the degree to which I was listening to their shared intimacies. I probably should have slipped them a card that said, simply, “Beware: I’m a writer.” But I betrayed nothing. I read a little about Beyoncé’s ability to make us feel like we are part of her unfolding story while keeping my ears carefully tuned to the real story unfolding right next to me.