There are people who are talented orators, who can weave a fine yarn out of any small thing that’s happened to them. There are also those folks who can continually fill the air with chatter, cracking jokes and making small talk out of anything. These folks always seem to have something interesting to say, a charismatic way to attain an audience with even the slightest bit of substance. When they speak, they themselves seem interesting.
But I’m neither of those types of speakers. I’m more of a matter-of-fact kind of orator. When I do tell stories of my experiences, they tend to be dry and straightforward; a distillation of the story into the most important parts and facts. I don’t possess much flair for the dramatic, but stay firmly grounded in the brief reality of what happened. And mostly, when I think of things to say, I often chose not to actually say them because they seem to me so uninteresting.
So, with my limited capacity to pique people’s attention through sensational storytelling and my absence of readily making small talk, I seek to have an arsenal of things to chat about that are inherently intriguing to the listener. If the oration can’t gain people’s interest, then at least the content should. And I do want to be seen as an interesting person; I want to be the type of person with many different and unique experiences to share with others. For me, traveling around and trying out different ways of life has greatly added to that arsenal of small talk subjects (though that is an externality of what I have done, and not a primary motivation for it; my inherent curiosity of trying new things and seeking new experiences are done for intrinsic reasons alone). With my tendency to talk about things that have actually happened to me, I can now use as conversation starters (for example) my months in Australia living out of a van and picking fruit, or what its like to serve as a deckhand aboard a historic sailing vessel, or what it’s like to complete a 19-day, 1,200-mile bike ride. I can easily ramble on about all the trips I’ve taken in the outdoors and all the places I’ve gone and the things I’ve seen. To a lot of people, I’d assume, this stuff would be interesting. And I, in turn, would appear to be an interesting person for doing it.
However, eventually all this stuff too begins to seem mundane. After all, I’ve done it all and experienced it already, so it can’t be too extraordinary. Let’s talk about something even more interesting, that is to say, something I haven’t done yet. The things other people have done still seem even more interesting than myself.
And so goes the cycle. The past experiences I’ve had have been retold enough times by me that all the novelty and the inherent interest they have to me has worn off. This even includes experiences that people would describe as ‘once in a lifetime,’ such as my fruit-picking foray in Australia or the five months I spent on a western American road trip. To me, in retrospect, those experiences have become such a commonplace occurrence in my personal narrative that they cease to be extraordinary. Do I commonly forget that others still might think of these things as interesting? Perhaps. But no matter how much stuff I do that others would find fascinating, I never feel like it’s enough. I never think that I am yet that pinnacle achievement of an interesting person. So I continually seek to do more interesting stuff and become an even more inherently interesting person.
I’d like to think of myself as an interesting person who others would like to converse with, but my reserved nature often limits my inclination to engage. Trying to make myself more interesting, to have more cannon fodder to chat about, seems to be a coping mechanism to be more pro-social. I love conversing with people, and I can be quite gregarious at times as well, but small talk has always been something I have struggled with. I know that presentation is important, and a lot of great ideas and stories get overlooked because they are not presented in the most engaging sales pitch. But my standard is that I want the content to speak for itself. My philosophy is that if people are going to listen to me, it’s going to be because I have interesting things to say, not because I merely say mundane things in a charismatic way. It’s the stories I have to share that are the things to be treasured, not merely the way I present them.
Even though small talk and engaging in conversations is difficult for me, there comes a point in some conversations where I reach a state of flow, when conversing and sharing details becomes not only easy but also enjoyable. It is in these moments when I’m not on the outside trying to appear as an interesting person; it is when the subject of discussion itself becomes the uniting factor between the conversers. Discussing things, even mundane things, in-depth seems to be more of my forte. I find it extremely enjoyable when my conversation partners, instead of just hearing the sensational part of the story, stick around to ask deeper, more probing questions about the experience. The conversation grows from there. I can dig through the archives of my past lived experiences, and can readily list off a bevy of facts and details to share about things that I am interested in. My conversation partner, interested in the same subject, will happily engage in the listening and conversing process. My theory is that as long as there are people who are interested in the same things I am passionate about, who are active and courageous listeners, then I will always have a supply of people with whom to be conversation partners. That doesn’t mean that I always have to talk about things that are inherently interesting, or to present things in a nauseatingly engaging manner. Sometimes it can be the subject, or the art of conversation itself, that speaks for itself through you.
Recently I took a trip down memory lane with a fellow co-conspirator of one of my most memorable spring break trips ever, a canoeing/backpacking trip to the wilds of Mississippi. It was a trip to be remembered not only because of the adventure but also because of so many things that frankly went haywire:
One of our cars breaking down on the first night in the country town of Effingham, Illinois; sleeping in our cars in the parking lot of the repair shop that first night waiting for the shop to open in the morning; taking a pilgrimage to the second-largest cross in America beside the freeway while waiting for said car to get repaired; running into a traffic jam at a police checkpoint on the highway late at night in muggy Mississippi—and having the power braking go out in the car during that episode; awaking our first morning in Mississippi to gunfire from local turkey hunters wandering through camp; canoeing down a river traversing from bank to bank the whole time because no one in the group actually knew how to canoe; nearly stepping on rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the trail—multiple times; having a deer run through camp at night and scare the living bejesus out of us; having one of our friends get bit by a water snake while we were bathing in the creek; visiting Alabama’s Dauphin Island on the last day of our trip and finding out there were no campgrounds to stay at—so instead after much searching, eventually knocking on a random parsonage door at night to ask if we could sleep in a parking lot (and instead getting invited to sleep in the church’s retreat center!); a fateful morning of napping on Dauphin Island’s beach, leading to second-degree sunburn and sun poisoning before driving through the night back to Michigan; stopping at a place called Hart’s Fried Chicken and ordering the greasiest things on the menu before the drive; washing all of our clothes at a friend’s house before the dorms re-opened, and then finding out that the dryer was broken; some friends finding ticks engorged in uncomfortable places after arriving back from the trip; it could go on…
Some might say that on this trip a lot of things went wrong. Personally I’m not apt to call these events wrong as such—more so, the events of the trip just went much differently from our idealized expectations of an uneventful vacation. Reflecting on the premises of the trip reveals that running into some snafus seemed likely. We were, after all, only a group of ten friends—sophomores in college—without any significant experience canoeing or traveling in the backcountry (and perhaps our resumes were lacking for road trip experience as well). But despite all the happenings and dangerous circumstances encountered, we all survived to tell the tale. We can look back fondly and humorously at the entire experience because no permanent harm was done (perhaps with the exception of guaranteeing ourselves skin cancer).
This trip to Mississippi stands out from other trips I’ve taken particularly because of the number of things that went unexpected. Looking back, the whole trip could have been written as a comedy sketch. How many goofy things could possibly happen in this episode of college wilderness spring break? On trips I would take in the future, I would apply the lessons I learned from past mistakes. I would gradually get more comfortable in the outdoors, make better trip preparations, and foresee adverse situations before they would arise. Things got a lot easier with more experience. But I also found they got less memorable.
The following spring break was also a canoeing trip with friends, this time on Florida’s Suwanee River. The entire trip went off without a hitch. No car trouble, no inadequate provisioning, no half-baked plans. It really was a trip you could wrap up neatly and put down in the books. But I felt a little shortchanged from it. I felt like I got off that trip a little too easy. Somehow, I felt like I had been gipped. Thinking about the Suwanee trip years later, many fine details of the experience are largely forgotten, and few stories about it have been re-told. The trip itself does not possess much salience in my mind either.
I think this example of these two spring break trips illustrates a trend I’ve noticed in my life. As someone who learns quickly from past experience, I don’t possess anywhere near the level of greenness or naïveté I had in my early college days. I’m now able to get through life easier without committing so many of the egregious errors or faux pas of my younger years. As I get better at navigating the messy world of life, I’ve noticed one unintended consequence: I’ve been making these distinct memories of unexpected circumstances with far less frequency.
I’m aware of this trend, and part of myself is frightened that I’ll stop making memories quite as spectacular as my Mississippi spring break. I’m concerned that life will become mundane and routine, and the vivid experiences of life will slip into the hum-drum milieu of quotidian tedium. I’m afraid that I’ll no longer be making the memories which I’d love to look back upon. Psychological research details how our lives mellow out as we age. I was a mellow personality to begin with, and I’ve already seen myself soften out more as I’ve gotten older. As I mature further and gain more life experience, am I going to find it increasingly difficult to make specific memories? Am I going to run out of things to try that are absurdly outside of my range of expertise—or will I even lose the motivation to try such things?
I wonder if this fear is one of the reasons why I’m wary of settling down, why I keep flirting with transiency and playing hard-to-get with consistency. That instead of doing one thing in one place for a long time, I keep wandering from place to place and from job to job seeking out new places and experiences. I’m no longer absurdly incompetent in a lot of areas as I once was. Years later, I have become very proficient in outdoor travel. I’ve even worked as a canoe guide. If I were to take it again now, a trip like my Mississippi spring break would likely present little challenge to me.
Instead, I find myself seeking out new areas in which I will continually challenge my limits, branching out into more and more disciplines. Once I felt comfortable with my level of mastery at the things that interested me most, I had to start seeking positions further afield where I could step yet again outside of my comfort zone. True, part of my motivation for doing this is the desire to develop new skills in other disciplines. But I am also motivated by the challenge of doing things that I’m not familiar with and the memorable experiences that ensue.
And this process of doing things outside of my comfort zone, I’ve found, is a key element in adding to the memory-making process. It’s something I can control that augments the production of memories. Truly, my working holiday in Australia was partly motivated by this, especially by a desire to break from the monotony of going to grad school day after day and living a stable life in the same house for two years in a row. The scope of my Australian journey was a stretch for me, and how it comically unraveled produced many great stories and memories about how naïve and unprepared I actually was. But—I learned so much from that experience that if I were to do it again, it would be far easier for me—and also much less memorable.
I still find myself drawn to employment positions that are slightly out of my comfort zone and realm of experience as well. In fact, it seems to be a job requirement for me. Substitute teaching in public schools has been a great example of this. I was incredibly nervous before I started subbing, and I still often feel out of my element in the classroom. But I have accumulated a treasure-trove of memories and stories from the experience (although my most vivid memories are of just how awful children can act). Though far from a professional, even after just a few weeks of subbing I’m beginning to feel more comfortable leading a classroom. I wonder if that’s a sign it’s time to try something new?
Am I drawn to the memories? Am I addicted to them? Am I drawn to novelty and repelled by familiarity because I covet the memories that novelty so often provides? Am I scared that based on the trends I’ve seen so far, that I’ll eventually run out of things to do in order to make new memories? Is my incestuous desire for vivid memories stifling my development?
I want to keep making new memories, though, and memories that will stick around with distinction. The question may be how to go about this. How can I still make new memories and lead a more stable and consistent life? Somehow I need to find a way of continuing to make mistakes worth learning from. As long as I survive those mistakes, I’ll be able to look back on those memories fondly.