Three weeks ago today I experienced a moment that my mind can still only describe to me using the words of master lyricist Amanda Palmer as a moment when, "everyone touched me at once". This is what the world wide web does.
Our Ted Talk was written at our kitchen table in Dublin during the Beast from the East, recorded weeks later and sent down the information superhighway three weeks ago. Twelve short hours after the video went live 269 people every 60 seconds somewhere on the globe were watching us speak. My partner Mark Pollock and I suddenly were some sort of digital seanchaíthe.
The talk describes how we met, what happened when Mark, an adventure athlete who has been blind for 20 years, broke his back and was left paralysed, and how we have coped with that. I learned many things from writing and performing a Ted Talk. Here are a few.
1. It’s true what they say about writing: “Kill your darlings”
A Ted Talk is simply an idea worth spreading. This is the Ted tagline and its curator Chris Anderson says the point of the conference is – for the speakers to transfer into their listeners' minds an extraordinary gift – a strange and beautiful object that we call an idea. And we know that ideas are best transmitted using story.
In this context, my post-Ted self would tell my pre-Ted self – “Sit down at the table. With huge intellectual curiosity and creativity. Think hard. Invite it out. Write, talk it through, and when you get to the end of the draft, perform it. Get honest feedback from your speaker coach (thank you and so sorry, Helen). Then, take that draft, find the one tiny piece you like, keep it, and throw the rest directly in the bin. Repeat 10 times, until a talk you didn’t even know was there emerges from the ether.” (Then I think the pre-Ted me would tell post-Ted me to get lost.)
2. Collaboration is the conflict required for creativity
Most Ted Talks are one talk delivered by one speaker. Mark and I were two people delivering one talk. It meant double the clashing work schedules, double the exhaustion, double the expectation and anxiety, double the experience of a single event and double the creative difference.
It was also double the experience of a seemingly single time in our lives. We were both in the hospital after Mark’s accident, often witnessing the same conversations, but we are two separate human beings experiencing life.
When writing the talk one of us would recall a moment, maybe something said by a doctor in intensive care, or a feeling we thought we shared at the time, to find, sitting now at our kitchen table, that we often took quite different significance from it. And that hurt. This was at times a painful process.
I have learned this past year, through the Ted experience, and through our work on the paralysis cure and through my human rights legal work, that while everyone uses this word “collaboration”, most of us have no idea actually how to collaborate, especially in the vulnerability of creating something that never existed before.
Writing this talk was a lesson in creativity emerging from conflict, where ideas collide and the strongest ones survive. To stay with the rejection and pain of making it good enough; hopefully, to make it great. Collaboration is managing conflict so that the inevitable lumps it takes out of us are able to heal.
3. Ted Talks are therapy
It became clear as one or the other of us sat at our kitchen table, face in our hands, sobbing, that these experiences are still tough for us to resurrect. Because what happened to Mark when he broke his back and nearly died is a lot of tragedy to take in one go, we decided to break the tension by telling the messy, human, but ordinary story of how Mark tried to break up with me as he lay in intensive care and how annoying I found that. It was so risky.
But we hoped people would understand, maybe laugh with us and also learn in a few seconds what it would take five hours to explain: sometimes you have to give someone you love the choice to leave even if they can’t take it at the time.
4. Some tears are good
Our rehearsal at the Ted conference in Vancouver was the only event of the whole week that ran behind schedule, and in all the rush we missed that there was a speaker meeting scheduled for right after our rehearsal.
As I began to speak the first line of our talk there were maybe 100 other speakers watching us and a head lifted in the second row, revealing the beautiful, expressive eyes of actress-activist Tracee Ellis Ross – an intelligent, talented, woman and someone I have admired since I saw her speak at a 2015 round table discussion on feminism.
So, I climbed into the fear of letting someone down whose opinion I value and I mostly spoke to her. This was both great and emotional. Her face is so expressive. I could see in her the outrage and pain I should be feeling about what happened to us, but that I don’t always feel, because it has hardened part of me.
In the final part of the talk I say that acceptance is knowing that grief is a raging river and that you have to get into it. As I spoke those words Ellis Ross broke into tears and it almost stopped me dead.
I wondered what we had done in writing this talk. It was too much. As we came around from the stage through the back of the theatre, Chris Anderson was opening the speaker meeting and talking emotionally about our talk. I cringed. I thought we had made a big mistake; we didn’t want to hurt people or to manipulate them to pity.
But a young Ted curator came and said – you did a great job. I argued with him – are you sure? Isn’t it too much? People were really crying; I don’t want to do that to people. He answered – no, they aren’t those tears. They are good tears. It’s all good.
5. Ted Talks are art masquerading as information
I have learned these past few weeks that in fact our Ted Talk is a humanist message. When writing it I wanted to communicate past the simple story people think they want to hear about Mark and me. That co-opting of the word “love” to mean only romantic love, ending ideally with the fairy-tale wedding. That, that was what fuelled our survival through this.
This isn’t the truth and really this isn’t the story that humans need. I wanted to tell the story about the expansive and abundant love we found ourselves in, about all human connection and how science really taught us that.
Having done the talk I have learned that this is the alchemy of art. Ted Talks are art masquerading as information. I was struggling to express something, not yet a fully formed articulation in my head, but I stuttered it out anyway. Then scientists and other fine humans heard it and spoke it back to me from their experience in a way that has helped me understand my life better.
A woman I met in the toilets after we gave our talk at Ted said to me “I had forgotten why I was doing what I do; it seemed like I had no purpose. So, thank you for what you said about science. Thank you for saying ‘science is love’.”
I asked her what she did. She told me she was mapping the genome.