“Never lose face,” was the motto a friend and I adopted years ago. The pressure to live by such a stuffy guiding principle came after we presented a workshop on an icy winter night in a forest retreat center housed in a unilluminated park. First we lost our way and then we lost our audience. (Role playing was clearly not their mode of learning.) As I grew older, I stuck with this motto, and only occasionally jumped into potential face-losing activities without considering it.
One period in which I forgot to think about the motto came when I worked as a school district Employee Wellness Coordinator. My role was to get teachers, bus drivers and other staff to stop smoking, stop eating, and start exercising. I let schools know that I was available to give speeches to teachers and other staff about health and fitness. Not knowing what they were getting into, some schools took me up on my offer.
At four p.m. after a hard day in the classroom, most teachers were not ready to sit still and listen to anyone drone on about their hearts, their body mass indexes, or the bags of Cheetos on their laps. They just wanted to perseverate about their stress levels. I was proud of myself when I thought of a gimmick to keep them awake while I was talking. I bought three t-shirts showing different parts of the human body, put on all three before speaking, creating a bulky, layered look before it was fashionable. I then began my presentation, tossing off a t-shirt when I changed the subject, from muscles to bones to the heart and circulatory system. I don’t know what the teachers learned, but I do know that no one’s eyes ever left me while I was talking.
One of the teachers invited me to do the same speech at her church. Even now, 24 years later, I wonder if I crossed the line, especially since a former assistant superintendent recently said to me, “I remember the first time I saw you. You were taking off your clothes in front of an audience at my church.”
Coming back to the present, today I listened to a TED talk about creativity by Sir Ken Robinson, which led me to re-think my old motto. His message was that schools discourage creativity and downplay the arts. He said, “If you have not allowed people to be wrong, they will never come up with anything original.” I took this to mean that certain kinds of risk-taking is important if we’re going to create anything new. Yes, we will make mistakes and we will be wrong some of the time, but that’s the price we must pay to generate a new idea or product.
Sir Ken is right. For the past year I trapped myself into believing I had to replicate reality when imagining characters for my book. It has taken this long for me to see that I need to drop my play-it-safe, nearly lifelong motto and start creating characters that have never existed, especially if I want to make people laugh. These characters can be incompetent or wise, passionate or indifferent, idiotic or sensible, shallow or deep. It’s up to me to take the risk and start fresh with a new, imagined reality. Since I now believe that taking a leap into the unknown, even losing face, has potential value, who knows what I might do next? Don’t worry. Whatever I come up with, it will not involve removing my clothes in church.