12:59
TED2016

Lidia Yuknavitch: The beauty of being a misfit

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To those who feel like they don't belong: there is beauty in being a misfit. Author Lidia Yuknavitch shares her own wayward journey in an intimate recollection of patchwork stories about loss, shame and the slow process of self-acceptance. "Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful," she says. "You don't know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That's your beauty."

- Author
In her acclaimed novels and memoir, author Lidia Yuknavitch navigates the intersection of tragedy and violence to draw new roadmaps for self­-discovery. Full bio

So I know TED is about a lot
of things that are big,
00:12
but I want to talk to you
about something very small.
00:16
So small, it's a single word.
00:20
The word is "misfit."
00:23
It's one of my favorite words,
because it's so literal.
00:25
I mean, it's a person
who sort of missed fitting in.
00:29
Or a person who fits in badly.
00:33
Or this: "a person who is poorly adapted
00:36
to new situations and environments."
00:39
I'm a card-carrying misfit.
00:43
And I'm here for the other
misfits in the room,
00:46
because I'm never the only one.
00:49
I'm going to tell you a misfit story.
00:51
Somewhere in my early 30s,
00:55
the dream of becoming a writer
came right to my doorstep.
00:57
Actually, it came to my mailbox
01:02
in the form of a letter that said
I'd won a giant literary prize
01:03
for a short story I had written.
01:07
The short story was about my life
as a competitive swimmer
01:10
and about my crappy home life,
01:14
and a little bit about how grief
and loss can make you insane.
01:17
The prize was a trip to New York City
to meet big-time editors and agents
01:23
and other authors.
01:28
So kind of it was the wannabe
writer's dream, right?
01:30
You know what I did the day
the letter came to my house?
01:34
Because I'm me,
01:38
I put the letter on my kitchen table,
01:39
I poured myself a giant glass of vodka
01:42
with ice and lime,
01:45
and I sat there in my underwear
for an entire day,
01:48
just staring at the letter.
01:52
I was thinking about all the ways
I'd already screwed my life up.
01:56
Who the hell was I to go to New York City
01:59
and pretend to be a writer?
02:02
Who was I?
02:05
I'll tell you.
02:07
I was a misfit.
02:08
Like legions of other children,
02:10
I came from an abusive household
02:13
that I narrowly escaped with my life.
02:16
I already had two epically
failed marriages underneath my belt.
02:19
I'd flunked out of college
not once but twice
02:24
and maybe even a third time
that I'm not going to tell you about.
02:27
(Laughter)
02:30
And I'd done an episode
of rehab for drug use.
02:32
And I'd had two lovely
staycations in jail.
02:36
So I'm on the right stage.
02:42
(Laughter)
02:45
But the real reason,
I think, I was a misfit,
02:48
is that my daughter died
the day she was born,
02:52
and I hadn't figured out
how to live with that story yet.
02:55
After my daughter died
I also spent a long time homeless,
03:00
living under an overpass
03:05
in a kind of profound state
of zombie grief and loss
03:07
that some of us encounter along the way.
03:11
Maybe all of us, if you live long enough.
03:14
You know, homeless people
are some of our most heroic misfits,
03:18
because they start out as us.
03:22
So you see, I'd missed fitting in
to just about every category out there:
03:26
daughter, wife, mother, scholar.
03:32
And the dream of being a writer
03:37
was really kind of like a small,
sad stone in my throat.
03:39
It was pretty much in spite of myself
that I got on that plane
03:46
and flew to New York City,
03:50
where the writers are.
03:52
Fellow misfits, I can almost
see your heads glowing.
03:55
I can pick you out of a room.
03:58
At first, you would've loved it.
04:00
You got to choose the three
famous writers you wanted to meet,
04:03
and these guys went
and found them for you.
04:06
You got set up at the Gramercy Park Hotel,
04:08
where you got to drink Scotch
late in the night
04:11
with cool, smart, swank people.
04:14
And you got to pretend you were cool
and smart and swank, too.
04:16
And you got to meet a bunch
of editors and authors and agents
04:21
at very, very fancy lunches and dinners.
04:24
Ask me how fancy.
04:29
Audience: How fancy?
04:31
Lidia Yuknavitch: I'm making a confession:
I stole three linen napkins --
04:34
(Laughter)
04:38
from three different restaurants.
04:40
And I shoved a menu down my pants.
04:42
(Laughter)
04:44
I just wanted some keepsakes
so that when I got home,
04:46
I could believe it had really
happened to me.
04:50
You know?
04:53
The three writers I wanted to meet
04:55
were Carole Maso, Lynne Tillman
and Peggy Phelan.
04:57
These were not famous,
best-selling authors,
05:00
but to me, they were women-writer titans.
05:03
Carole Maso wrote the book
that later became my art bible.
05:07
Lynne Tillman gave me
permission to believe
05:12
that there was a chance
my stories could be part of the world.
05:14
And Peggy Phelan reminded me
05:18
that maybe my brains
could be more important than my boobs.
05:20
They weren't mainstream women writers,
05:27
but they were cutting a path
through the mainstream
05:30
with their body stories,
05:34
I like to think, kind of the way
water cut the Grand Canyon.
05:36
It nearly killed me with joy
05:41
to hang out with these three
over-50-year-old women writers.
05:43
And the reason it nearly
killed me with joy
05:46
is that I'd never known a joy like that.
05:49
I'd never been in a room like that.
05:52
My mother never went to college.
05:54
And my creative career to that point
05:56
was a sort of small, sad, stillborn thing.
05:59
So kind of in those first nights
in New York I wanted to die there.
06:05
I was just like, "Kill me now.
I'm good. This is beautiful."
06:08
Some of you in the room
will understand what happened next.
06:13
First, they took me to the offices
of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
06:16
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
was like my mega-dream press.
06:21
I mean, T.S. Eliot and Flannery O'Connor
were published there.
06:25
The main editor guy sat me down
and talked to me for a long time,
06:29
trying to convince me I had a book in me
06:33
about my life as a swimmer.
06:36
You know, like a memoir.
06:38
The whole time he was talking to me,
06:40
I sat there smiling and nodding
like a numb idiot,
06:42
with my arms crossed over my chest,
06:47
while nothing, nothing, nothing
came out of my throat.
06:49
So in the end, he patted me
on the shoulder
06:55
like a swim coach might.
06:59
And he wished me luck
07:01
and he gave me some free books
07:03
and he showed me out the door.
07:05
Next, they took me
to the offices of W.W. Norton,
07:09
where I was pretty sure
I'd be escorted from the building
07:12
just for wearing Doc Martens.
07:15
But that didn't happen.
07:18
Being at the Norton offices
07:20
felt like reaching up into the night sky
and touching the moon
07:22
while the stars stitched your name
across the cosmos.
07:27
I mean, that's how big
a deal it was to me.
07:31
You get it?
07:33
Their lead editor, Carol Houck Smith,
07:35
leaned over right in my face
with these beady, bright, fierce eyes
07:38
and said, "Well, send me
something then, immediately!"
07:42
See, now most people,
especially TED people,
07:46
would have run to the mailbox, right?
07:48
It took me over a decade to even imagine
07:51
putting something in an envelope
and licking a stamp.
07:54
On the last night,
08:00
I gave a big reading
at the National Poetry Club.
08:02
And at the end of the reading,
08:06
Katharine Kidde of Kidde,
Hoyt & Picard Literary Agency,
08:08
walked straight up to me and shook my hand
08:12
and offered me representation,
like, on the spot.
08:15
I stood there and I kind of went deaf.
08:20
Has this ever happened to you?
08:23
And I almost started crying
08:25
because all the people in the room
were dressed so beautifully,
08:27
and all that came out of my mouth was:
08:31
"I don't know. I have to think about it."
08:34
And she said, "OK, then," and walked away.
08:38
All those open hands out to me,
that small, sad stone in my throat ...
08:44
You see, I'm trying to tell you something
about people like me.
08:51
Misfit people -- we don't always know
how to hope or say yes
08:55
or choose the big thing,
08:59
even when it's right in front of us.
09:01
It's a shame we carry.
09:03
It's the shame of wanting something good.
09:04
It's the shame of feeling something good.
09:06
It's the shame of not really believing
we deserve to be in the room
09:08
with the people we admire.
09:13
If I could, I'd go back
and I'd coach myself.
09:16
I'd be exactly like those
over-50-year-old women who helped me.
09:19
I'd teach myself how to want things,
09:23
how to stand up, how to ask for them.
09:25
I'd say, "You! Yeah, you!
You belong in the room, too."
09:28
The radiance falls on all of us,
09:32
and we are nothing without each other.
09:34
Instead, I flew back to Oregon,
09:39
and as I watched the evergreens
and rain come back into view,
09:42
I just drank many tiny bottles
of airplane "feel sorry for yourself."
09:48
I thought about how, if I was a writer,
I was some kind of misfit writer.
09:53
What I'm saying is,
09:59
I flew back to Oregon without a book deal,
10:00
without an agent,
10:02
and with only a headful
and heart-ful of memories
10:03
of having sat so near
10:06
the beautiful writers.
10:09
Memory was the only prize
I allowed myself.
10:12
And yet, at home in the dark,
10:17
back in my underwear,
10:21
I could still hear their voices.
10:23
They said, "Don't listen to anyone
who tries to get you to shut up
10:26
or change your story."
10:30
They said, "Give voice to the story
only you know how to tell."
10:32
They said, "Sometimes telling the story
10:36
is the thing that saves your life."
10:39
Now I am, as you can see,
the woman over 50.
10:43
And I'm a writer.
10:48
And I'm a mother.
10:50
And I became a teacher.
10:52
Guess who my favorite students are.
10:54
Although it didn't happen the day
10:58
that dream letter came through my mailbox,
11:00
I did write a memoir,
11:02
called "The Chronology of Water."
11:04
In it are the stories of how many times
I've had to reinvent a self
11:06
from the ruins of my choices,
11:11
the stories of how my seeming failures
were really just weird-ass portals
11:14
to something beautiful.
11:20
All I had to do
was give voice to the story.
11:22
There's a myth in most cultures
about following your dreams.
11:27
It's called the hero's journey.
11:32
But I prefer a different myth,
11:35
that's slightly to the side of that
11:37
or underneath it.
11:39
It's called the misfit's myth.
11:41
And it goes like this:
11:43
even at the moment of your failure,
11:45
right then, you are beautiful.
11:47
You don't know it yet,
11:51
but you have the ability
to reinvent yourself
11:52
endlessly.
11:55
That's your beauty.
11:57
You can be a drunk,
11:59
you can be a survivor of abuse,
12:01
you can be an ex-con,
12:03
you can be a homeless person,
12:05
you can lose all your money
or your job or your husband
12:06
or your wife, or the worst thing of all,
12:09
a child.
12:12
You can even lose your marbles.
12:13
You can be standing dead center
in the middle of your failure
12:15
and still, I'm only here to tell you,
12:20
you are so beautiful.
12:22
Your story deserves to be heard,
12:25
because you, you rare
and phenomenal misfit,
12:27
you new species,
12:31
are the only one in the room
12:34
who can tell the story
12:36
the way only you would.
12:38
And I'd be listening.
12:41
Thank you.
12:44
(Applause)
12:46

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About the Speaker:

Lidia Yuknavitch - Author
In her acclaimed novels and memoir, author Lidia Yuknavitch navigates the intersection of tragedy and violence to draw new roadmaps for self­-discovery.

Why you should listen

Writer Lidia Yuknavitch discovered her calling after an interrupted journey as a would­-be Olympic swimmer. Her prose erases the boundaries between memoir and fiction, explodes gender binaries and focuses on the visceral minutiae of the body.

She was inspired by Ken Kesey (with whom she collaborated on a collective novel project at Oregon University); her latest book, The Small Backs of Children, stands as a fictional counterpoint to her memoir The Chronology of Water, which has garnered her a cult following for its honesty and intensity.

More profile about the speaker
Lidia Yuknavitch | Speaker | TED.com