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
TED2016

Lidia Yuknavitch: The beauty of being a misfit

Filmed:
2,573,549 views

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

Double-click the English transcript below to play the video.

00:12
So I know TED is about a lot
of things that are big,
0
841
3731
00:16
but I want to talk to you
about something very small.
1
4596
3530
00:20
So small, it's a single word.
2
8150
2158
00:23
The word is "misfit."
3
11093
1556
00:25
It's one of my favorite words,
because it's so literal.
4
13347
3619
00:29
I mean, it's a person
who sort of missed fitting in.
5
17403
3946
00:33
Or a person who fits in badly.
6
21752
2296
00:36
Or this: "a person who is poorly adapted
7
24658
2923
00:39
to new situations and environments."
8
27605
2868
00:43
I'm a card-carrying misfit.
9
31298
2222
00:46
And I'm here for the other
misfits in the room,
10
34307
2833
00:49
because I'm never the only one.
11
37164
1811
00:51
I'm going to tell you a misfit story.
12
39995
1885
00:55
Somewhere in my early 30s,
13
43237
2532
00:57
the dream of becoming a writer
came right to my doorstep.
14
45793
3562
01:02
Actually, it came to my mailbox
15
50198
1604
01:03
in the form of a letter that said
I'd won a giant literary prize
16
51826
3659
01:07
for a short story I had written.
17
55509
1925
01:10
The short story was about my life
as a competitive swimmer
18
58183
3761
01:14
and about my crappy home life,
19
62632
2055
01:17
and a little bit about how grief
and loss can make you insane.
20
65258
4897
01:23
The prize was a trip to New York City
to meet big-time editors and agents
21
71829
4673
01:28
and other authors.
22
76526
1324
01:30
So kind of it was the wannabe
writer's dream, right?
23
78278
3064
01:34
You know what I did the day
the letter came to my house?
24
82573
2840
01:38
Because I'm me,
25
86037
1798
01:39
I put the letter on my kitchen table,
26
87859
2197
01:42
I poured myself a giant glass of vodka
27
90080
3442
01:45
with ice and lime,
28
93922
2370
01:48
and I sat there in my underwear
for an entire day,
29
96722
4204
01:52
just staring at the letter.
30
100950
2082
01:56
I was thinking about all the ways
I'd already screwed my life up.
31
104608
3145
01:59
Who the hell was I to go to New York City
32
107777
3174
02:02
and pretend to be a writer?
33
110975
1730
02:05
Who was I?
34
113681
1365
02:07
I'll tell you.
35
115070
1198
02:08
I was a misfit.
36
116745
1167
02:10
Like legions of other children,
37
118625
2363
02:13
I came from an abusive household
38
121908
2368
02:16
that I narrowly escaped with my life.
39
124300
2656
02:19
I already had two epically
failed marriages underneath my belt.
40
127727
4491
02:24
I'd flunked out of college
not once but twice
41
132242
2966
02:27
and maybe even a third time
that I'm not going to tell you about.
42
135232
3192
02:30
(Laughter)
43
138448
1810
02:32
And I'd done an episode
of rehab for drug use.
44
140582
3661
02:36
And I'd had two lovely
staycations in jail.
45
144795
4450
02:42
So I'm on the right stage.
46
150228
1904
02:45
(Laughter)
47
153680
2090
02:48
But the real reason,
I think, I was a misfit,
48
156744
3493
02:52
is that my daughter died
the day she was born,
49
160261
3262
02:55
and I hadn't figured out
how to live with that story yet.
50
163547
3119
03:00
After my daughter died
I also spent a long time homeless,
51
168233
5127
03:05
living under an overpass
52
173384
1944
03:07
in a kind of profound state
of zombie grief and loss
53
175352
4218
03:11
that some of us encounter along the way.
54
179594
2514
03:14
Maybe all of us, if you live long enough.
55
182132
2731
03:18
You know, homeless people
are some of our most heroic misfits,
56
186240
3997
03:22
because they start out as us.
57
190261
3096
03:26
So you see, I'd missed fitting in
to just about every category out there:
58
194670
5418
03:32
daughter, wife, mother, scholar.
59
200112
4468
03:37
And the dream of being a writer
60
205474
2499
03:39
was really kind of like a small,
sad stone in my throat.
61
207997
5441
03:46
It was pretty much in spite of myself
that I got on that plane
62
214906
3469
03:50
and flew to New York City,
63
218399
2387
03:52
where the writers are.
64
220810
1556
03:55
Fellow misfits, I can almost
see your heads glowing.
65
223168
3675
03:58
I can pick you out of a room.
66
226867
1912
04:00
At first, you would've loved it.
67
228803
2438
04:03
You got to choose the three
famous writers you wanted to meet,
68
231265
2952
04:06
and these guys went
and found them for you.
69
234241
2358
04:08
You got set up at the Gramercy Park Hotel,
70
236623
2790
04:11
where you got to drink Scotch
late in the night
71
239437
2634
04:14
with cool, smart, swank people.
72
242095
2491
04:16
And you got to pretend you were cool
and smart and swank, too.
73
244610
4509
04:21
And you got to meet a bunch
of editors and authors and agents
74
249143
3188
04:24
at very, very fancy lunches and dinners.
75
252355
4063
04:29
Ask me how fancy.
76
257377
1628
04:31
Audience: How fancy?
77
259735
1961
04:34
Lidia Yuknavitch: I'm making a confession:
I stole three linen napkins --
78
262077
4318
04:38
(Laughter)
79
266419
1571
04:40
from three different restaurants.
80
268014
1657
04:42
And I shoved a menu down my pants.
81
270430
2266
04:44
(Laughter)
82
272720
2076
04:46
I just wanted some keepsakes
so that when I got home,
83
274820
3706
04:50
I could believe it had really
happened to me.
84
278550
2285
04:53
You know?
85
281241
1229
04:55
The three writers I wanted to meet
86
283467
1664
04:57
were Carole Maso, Lynne Tillman
and Peggy Phelan.
87
285155
2809
05:00
These were not famous,
best-selling authors,
88
288496
3054
05:03
but to me, they were women-writer titans.
89
291574
3307
05:07
Carole Maso wrote the book
that later became my art bible.
90
295700
3562
05:12
Lynne Tillman gave me
permission to believe
91
300056
2501
05:14
that there was a chance
my stories could be part of the world.
92
302581
3481
05:18
And Peggy Phelan reminded me
93
306839
1954
05:20
that maybe my brains
could be more important than my boobs.
94
308817
5009
05:27
They weren't mainstream women writers,
95
315500
2684
05:30
but they were cutting a path
through the mainstream
96
318208
3777
05:34
with their body stories,
97
322009
1333
05:36
I like to think, kind of the way
water cut the Grand Canyon.
98
324294
4135
05:41
It nearly killed me with joy
99
329371
1711
05:43
to hang out with these three
over-50-year-old women writers.
100
331106
3841
05:46
And the reason it nearly
killed me with joy
101
334971
2926
05:49
is that I'd never known a joy like that.
102
337921
2069
05:52
I'd never been in a room like that.
103
340014
1682
05:54
My mother never went to college.
104
342350
1758
05:56
And my creative career to that point
105
344747
2489
05:59
was a sort of small, sad, stillborn thing.
106
347260
4452
06:05
So kind of in those first nights
in New York I wanted to die there.
107
353394
3279
06:08
I was just like, "Kill me now.
I'm good. This is beautiful."
108
356697
3440
06:13
Some of you in the room
will understand what happened next.
109
361187
3148
06:16
First, they took me to the offices
of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
110
364935
4295
06:21
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
was like my mega-dream press.
111
369863
3175
06:25
I mean, T.S. Eliot and Flannery O'Connor
were published there.
112
373062
3691
06:29
The main editor guy sat me down
and talked to me for a long time,
113
377418
4375
06:33
trying to convince me I had a book in me
114
381817
2318
06:36
about my life as a swimmer.
115
384159
1705
06:38
You know, like a memoir.
116
386498
1287
06:40
The whole time he was talking to me,
117
388630
2236
06:42
I sat there smiling and nodding
like a numb idiot,
118
390890
3705
06:47
with my arms crossed over my chest,
119
395509
1852
06:49
while nothing, nothing, nothing
came out of my throat.
120
397385
4917
06:55
So in the end, he patted me
on the shoulder
121
403875
3367
06:59
like a swim coach might.
122
407266
1581
07:01
And he wished me luck
123
409580
1835
07:03
and he gave me some free books
124
411439
2438
07:05
and he showed me out the door.
125
413901
1791
07:09
Next, they took me
to the offices of W.W. Norton,
126
417588
3267
07:12
where I was pretty sure
I'd be escorted from the building
127
420879
2700
07:15
just for wearing Doc Martens.
128
423603
1889
07:18
But that didn't happen.
129
426190
1449
07:20
Being at the Norton offices
130
428512
2429
07:22
felt like reaching up into the night sky
and touching the moon
131
430965
4472
07:27
while the stars stitched your name
across the cosmos.
132
435461
3637
07:31
I mean, that's how big
a deal it was to me.
133
439599
2145
07:33
You get it?
134
441768
1181
07:35
Their lead editor, Carol Houck Smith,
135
443567
2498
07:38
leaned over right in my face
with these beady, bright, fierce eyes
136
446089
4343
07:42
and said, "Well, send me
something then, immediately!"
137
450456
3110
07:46
See, now most people,
especially TED people,
138
454328
2292
07:48
would have run to the mailbox, right?
139
456644
2340
07:51
It took me over a decade to even imagine
140
459651
3278
07:54
putting something in an envelope
and licking a stamp.
141
462953
3877
08:00
On the last night,
142
468741
1574
08:02
I gave a big reading
at the National Poetry Club.
143
470339
3269
08:06
And at the end of the reading,
144
474342
1947
08:08
Katharine Kidde of Kidde,
Hoyt & Picard Literary Agency,
145
476313
4303
08:12
walked straight up to me and shook my hand
146
480640
2587
08:15
and offered me representation,
like, on the spot.
147
483251
3178
08:20
I stood there and I kind of went deaf.
148
488558
2987
08:23
Has this ever happened to you?
149
491569
1586
08:25
And I almost started crying
150
493703
2112
08:27
because all the people in the room
were dressed so beautifully,
151
495839
3925
08:31
and all that came out of my mouth was:
152
499788
3153
08:34
"I don't know. I have to think about it."
153
502965
3110
08:38
And she said, "OK, then," and walked away.
154
506805
4292
08:44
All those open hands out to me,
that small, sad stone in my throat ...
155
512884
6519
08:51
You see, I'm trying to tell you something
about people like me.
156
519427
3938
08:55
Misfit people -- we don't always know
how to hope or say yes
157
523389
4053
08:59
or choose the big thing,
158
527466
1611
09:01
even when it's right in front of us.
159
529101
2146
09:03
It's a shame we carry.
160
531271
1619
09:04
It's the shame of wanting something good.
161
532914
1991
09:06
It's the shame of feeling something good.
162
534929
1992
09:08
It's the shame of not really believing
we deserve to be in the room
163
536945
4382
09:13
with the people we admire.
164
541351
2117
09:16
If I could, I'd go back
and I'd coach myself.
165
544472
2926
09:19
I'd be exactly like those
over-50-year-old women who helped me.
166
547422
4343
09:23
I'd teach myself how to want things,
167
551789
1901
09:25
how to stand up, how to ask for them.
168
553714
2340
09:28
I'd say, "You! Yeah, you!
You belong in the room, too."
169
556078
4306
09:32
The radiance falls on all of us,
170
560408
2272
09:34
and we are nothing without each other.
171
562704
2911
09:39
Instead, I flew back to Oregon,
172
567041
3272
09:42
and as I watched the evergreens
and rain come back into view,
173
570337
5692
09:48
I just drank many tiny bottles
of airplane "feel sorry for yourself."
174
576053
4292
09:53
I thought about how, if I was a writer,
I was some kind of misfit writer.
175
581491
4842
09:59
What I'm saying is,
176
587244
1159
10:00
I flew back to Oregon without a book deal,
177
588427
2004
10:02
without an agent,
178
590455
1151
10:03
and with only a headful
and heart-ful of memories
179
591630
2485
10:06
of having sat so near
180
594139
3148
10:09
the beautiful writers.
181
597311
2270
10:12
Memory was the only prize
I allowed myself.
182
600278
3406
10:17
And yet, at home in the dark,
183
605175
3129
10:21
back in my underwear,
184
609272
1563
10:23
I could still hear their voices.
185
611788
1730
10:26
They said, "Don't listen to anyone
who tries to get you to shut up
186
614264
4041
10:30
or change your story."
187
618329
1551
10:32
They said, "Give voice to the story
only you know how to tell."
188
620861
3679
10:36
They said, "Sometimes telling the story
189
624564
2430
10:39
is the thing that saves your life."
190
627018
3046
10:43
Now I am, as you can see,
the woman over 50.
191
631703
3690
10:48
And I'm a writer.
192
636278
1175
10:50
And I'm a mother.
193
638516
1227
10:52
And I became a teacher.
194
640441
1537
10:54
Guess who my favorite students are.
195
642970
1881
10:58
Although it didn't happen the day
196
646604
1628
11:00
that dream letter came through my mailbox,
197
648256
2254
11:02
I did write a memoir,
198
650534
1673
11:04
called "The Chronology of Water."
199
652231
1833
11:06
In it are the stories of how many times
I've had to reinvent a self
200
654889
4699
11:11
from the ruins of my choices,
201
659612
2404
11:14
the stories of how my seeming failures
were really just weird-ass portals
202
662575
5410
11:20
to something beautiful.
203
668009
1522
11:22
All I had to do
was give voice to the story.
204
670309
3452
11:27
There's a myth in most cultures
about following your dreams.
205
675552
4246
11:32
It's called the hero's journey.
206
680664
1721
11:35
But I prefer a different myth,
207
683679
1824
11:37
that's slightly to the side of that
208
685527
1779
11:39
or underneath it.
209
687330
1157
11:41
It's called the misfit's myth.
210
689089
1852
11:43
And it goes like this:
211
691763
1265
11:45
even at the moment of your failure,
212
693623
2255
11:47
right then, you are beautiful.
213
695902
2578
11:51
You don't know it yet,
214
699585
1152
11:52
but you have the ability
to reinvent yourself
215
700761
3177
11:55
endlessly.
216
703962
1198
11:57
That's your beauty.
217
705184
1594
11:59
You can be a drunk,
218
707694
1516
12:01
you can be a survivor of abuse,
219
709234
2349
12:03
you can be an ex-con,
220
711607
1436
12:05
you can be a homeless person,
221
713067
1498
12:06
you can lose all your money
or your job or your husband
222
714589
3278
12:09
or your wife, or the worst thing of all,
223
717891
2414
12:12
a child.
224
720329
1150
12:13
You can even lose your marbles.
225
721864
2053
12:15
You can be standing dead center
in the middle of your failure
226
723941
4069
12:20
and still, I'm only here to tell you,
227
728034
2878
12:22
you are so beautiful.
228
730936
2113
12:25
Your story deserves to be heard,
229
733073
2299
12:27
because you, you rare
and phenomenal misfit,
230
735396
4273
12:31
you new species,
231
739693
2256
12:34
are the only one in the room
232
742568
1969
12:36
who can tell the story
233
744561
1616
12:38
the way only you would.
234
746201
2408
12:41
And I'd be listening.
235
749710
1510
12:44
Thank you.
236
752863
1176
12:46
(Applause)
237
754063
11360

▲Back to top

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