“You should do a TED talk,” a literary agent suggested, as I blinked at her.
“A TED talk? What would I even talk about? And how do you get a TED talk?”
The agent responded, “I don’t know exactly, but a TED talk would really help your platform.”
I refrained from snorting. Having just learned the definition of “platform,” I was painfully aware that I didn’t have one. I also didn’t have a book, a contract, an agent, or much of anything, aside from a half-written manuscript. “Right. I’ll work on it.”
That conversation happened five years ago. I have been working on landing a TED talk ever since. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. I applied at least ten times, all over the country, and never heard one word back. More gallingly, I applied to my own undergraduate alma matter. I was interviewed by three earnest Tufts undergraduates, who voiced enthusiasm for my pitch. I awaited the good news.
A week later I received an email, “Thank you but…Please apply next year…”
That response was crushing. Still, I picked myself up and the next year I reapplied. Once again, I was an interviewed finalist, and once again, I was turned down and asked to apply again.
I applied to Tufts TEDx four years in a row, and was an unsuccessful finalist all four years, until I threw in the towel. (No thank you, Tufts, I love you dearly but I will not be applying again.)
So, it was a thrill when my TEDx proposal was accepted by my graduate school, Widener University. Once the talk was confirmed, the game was on, a game which required literally months of preparation. It turns out that doing a TED talk is complicated. I submitted an outline, which was approved. Then my script was approved. At this juncture, I realized with dismay that I would have to memorize this 17 minute script, which was essentially a protracted monologue. (You may have never noticed, but TED talks are delivered with no notes or guiding slides. There is no teleprompter either.)
I used to be awesome at memorizing. I could read notes three times and know them verbatim. In graduate school, during exams, I could close my eyes, visualize my notes, mentally turn to the right paragraph, and locate the answer for the exam.
Aging brains being what they are, that time is long past. Painstakingly, I worked to memorize the 14-point talk. Three months ahead, I started to learn one paragraph at a time, making sure to note the transition from point to point. Each day I worked on this. For the final two months, every day I said the entire talk aloud, muttering to myself as I drove to work, took a shower, or walked the dog.
Figuring out what to wear was equally challenging. TED suggests that you do not wear the following: anything white (washes you out), black (blends into background), vividly colored (not good for the camera) or patterned (ditto.) That eliminates most wardrobe options. I had the added criteria of needing a sleeveless dress. Because my talk is about being disfigured, I wanted a dress which fully revealed my scars.
Ordinary shopping overwhelms me on a good day, so I approached the dress situation with trepidation. I had one great idea, my friend Kathy. She is a dear friend, a psychologist herself, with excellent design taste, and, mysteriously to me, loves to shop. “Will you come TEDx dress shopping with me?”
Off we went to the mall. We went into one store, where I found a good-enough dress. With relief, I immediately declared, “OK, that’s fine. Let’s go.”
Kathy looked at me aghast. “We only went to one store! You have to look around.”
“I hate shopping,” I whined.
“I know. But seriously, we have to at least go to two more stores. You just have to.”
Thanks to Kathy's patient persistence, I wound up with a much better dress and shoes to match. Talk memorized, outfit prepared, I was set.
On the day of the talk, I got my hair done, ate a little, and traveled down to Widener. My husband Doug drove with me. Several friends came to cheer me on as well.
I was the second-to-last speaker so there was a long time before I went on. I waited in the dark wings for my turn, doing a breathing exercise to calm me. As my turn neared, I closed my eyes and I said a prayer. “Please let the words come through me. Please let these words lift people up who look different. Please help me explain. Let the light shine through me.”
And I walked on. Energy filled me and the words simply flowed. They were my words but also, they were not my words. They were the experiences of everyone who looks different, who has been stared at, or made to feel inferior. They were the words of others who have worked to bring equality to the disfigured: psychologists, researchers, social activists, writers, and any in the community able to speak out.
And one more thing. I am a Deguire. You may not know many Deguires, but I assure you, Deguires can entertain. My dad could bring the house down with a piano and a grin. My grandfather played and sang at every party. My daughters are so charming you could forget your own name. That Deguire blood flowed through me as well.
Today, I am thrilled to share this TEDx with you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zD9KhXQOED8 The talk is entitled “Scarred Not Scary.” It is about my experiences being disfigured, the prejudice disfigured people face, and how Hollywood frequently portrays the visibly different as evil or pathetic. Please check it out.
Finally, I have a request. If you like this talk, I ask that you share it. I am trying to reach people with visible difference, to educate the general public, and to inspire Hollywood to change. Email it to your friends, post it on your social media, talk about it to others. People with visible difference do not have much power, and we are just 1% of the population. We need our friends and allies to help us. The more eyes on this message, the better chance of making a positive difference.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.