The Power of Story


I've always had a crippling fear of speaking in front of crowds. Or, really, any gathering larger than the capacity of a minivan. But last week, the racing heartbeat, shallow breaths and sweaty palms were completely worth it. I got to talk to well over 1,000 people, from 9 to 90, about the power of story.

I never thought I had much of a story worth sharing. I grew up in a loving home in South Dakota, where my dad worked as a pastor and later a welder and my mom worked as a teacher. My grandmother lived with us too and served as a generous surrogate parent when Mom or Dad were at work. In Without a Trace I call my growing up "happy, healthy suburbia," a life I later valued as blessed but, at the time, considered pretty uninteresting. I think that's why I've always been drawn to everyone else's stories. Even as a little kid my preferred evening activity was to hang at the dinner table, long after the dishes had been cleared, to listen to my parents and their friends swap their latest tales. That attraction to others' stories led me to take a journalism class at 15 years old, and I've never looked back.

But now, years later, the experience of unveiling the who, what, when, where of Sierra Phantom's life story has me rethinking my own. I'm seeing that every person has an extraordinary story within us. Why do you think "where are you from?" and "what do you do?" are often the first questions we exchange with one another. We want to know "who are you?" And even if we think our life is boring, it's simply not; it's one of a kind and should be shared.

For Sierra Phantom, having his life experiences documented was even more valuable than most. He was an orphan, he never knew a loving family, never married, never had kids. No one carried his story, until, in 2010, he started a conversation with a young journalist on the opposite coast. He began with his first memory, a 3-year-old version of him fleeing from a crib at his first orphanage. And I hit record.

Sierra Phantom taught me that our stories are our mark on the world. They're proof of our existence. We just need to be bold enough to document them. Now, this can be inconvenient. It requires time and, even more tough to come by, vulnerability. But I want to provide a gentle nudge for all of us to do it -- ask your grandparent about their early-life experiences, or a neighbor about a moment they wish they could return to. And hit record.

I have hours of interviews with Sierra Phantom that I have come to treasure (hear a few minutes of it on the DanielleNadler.com homepage). It makes me wish I would've thought to do the same with my father, grandfather and grandmother. Get out a notebook, a camera, or download a free recording app on your smart phone and be bold enough to document those stories that, if not told, will be lost.


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