Oleg Lougheed Plays Write or Die and Lives

Oleg Lougheed interviewed me for his podcast Overcoming Odds a few weeks ago, and when I researched him ahead of time and then when I talked with him, I thought he was like some mythical creature living on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, doing his thing in a way I had never seen anyone do before.

So I asked if I could interview him. I wanted to get closer to the unicorn.

If you want to know the foundation story of what makes him magical and strange and wonderful, you can read all about him on his website. He has done a bang-up job of telling his story there, so why repeat it? I want to get to the touching the unicorn part here.

We scheduled to talk by phone after his Ted Talk.

Yes, the unicorn did a Ted Talk.

And it’s a good thing I’m not a jealous person.

Anyway, I decided that instead of doing a standard phone interview with Oleg, I had this idea that I’d have him do the first part of a Write or Die class, so I could see what was behind the story I’d read on his website and the story I’d heard him talk about on his podcast. I wanted to see, to be perfectly honest, if the unicorn would slow down and say something…else.  

Because, while Oleg is many things, he is polished. This guy has game, and he tells this story of his with his sing-songy voice as if the story was a smooth rock and not a mouthful of broken glass. I was curious if there was another story, a story behind the story. The story of the heart instead of the story of what happened.

Oleg also is game. Everything I suggested to him he immediately said yes and did. The retired teacher in me wished there’d been thirty of him in every class I’d ever had. Teaching would have been like playing an awesome game of pinball where the ball never disappears instead of like playing a tennis game where the guy on the other side of the net keeps dropping his racket.

I am letting you into the secret world of Write or Die here. This is my cave, my favorite place, the place, to be honest, that I usually charge people to enter. But here you go. Here are the first three exercises I do in Write or Die and the reasons why. And here, thanks to Oleg’s courage and generosity and trust, are Oleg’s responses.

The first exercise I ask people to imagine they have just learned they have five minutes left to live and that there is the sweetest presence next to them. I picture it like an ear—something there just to listen. The reason I do this is that when people set out to write a project, they soon realize they have no idea who their audience is. I was finally able to write my own book when I realized my audience was a sacred listening presence. In a way it was like writing was prayer, an offering. The ear I whispered my story to wasn’t argumentative or questioning. It was loving and attentive. This exercise also helps people figure out their true voice. If you only have five minutes left to live you’re not going to talk like a guy in a suit trying to write an essay. You are most likely going to get weepy and talk from your guts or your soul.

Here’s what Oleg wrote:

I sat on one side of the table, as the woman in charge of placements sat on the other. My sister stood right behind me, crying, asking me to come home with her.

But, I had already made my decision.

After a few get-to-know you questions, we moved straight to the point.

The woman in charge of placements said, “You’ll have your own toys, friends to play with, food, and a roof over your head.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

On one hand, I was tempted to say, “No” as part of me still wanted to live with my sister. I loved her and still do.

But, on the other hand, I needed a change.

So, I broke down. I couldn’t express how I truly felt, as I didn’t want to disappoint my sister.

However, I had to make a decision.

An orphan, a term that became a part of my identity.

I felt alone and scared when I entered the doorway to, “Family #1.”I truly was alone, as my sister couldn’t be with me; I was no longer in her custody.

As I entered the orphanage, I was immediately met by Natalia, a caregiver. She was one of three, all working alternating shifts. Each one with her set of rules and expectations of how we should behave.

After a brief get-to-know you, and overview of the “family,” we were joined by another kid, an older orphan.

It was time.

Time to show me where we ate, slept, and cleaned dishes.

Everything seemed normal, until he said, “Behave, or you’ll be punished.”

I was scared. I wanted to go back and live with my sister, but there was nothing I could do to reverse my decision.

A decision that seemed promising at first, but turned out to be completely different.

Living at the orphanage had its own set of challenges, especially when it came to dealing with daily physical abuse.

A practice that was used by most caregivers and older orphans that “taught” us discipline. I still remember my first time.

Normally when I do the Write or Die classes I don’t comment after each exercise. The writer just reads his work out loud to me and we move on to the next assignment. So that’s what I did. I moved onto #2, which is fun for me to watch because I ask people to write their life story in five minutes with their non-dominant hand. I do this because writing with your “other” hand accesses another part of your brain, and your thoughts tend to be simpler, more childlike. Words become shorter. Thoughts become more direct. I do this because often people start writing — memoir, fiction, etc. — and then realize they have no idea what their story is. It’s a funny exercise because out of your entire life you have to choose a handful of details to focus on, so the results are very telling of what you deem important. So even though this exercise focuses on your life, you could do it for any kind of writing project, summarizing it in five minutes with your non-dominant hand.

This is what Oleg wrote:

I stood there, watching it unfold. My face was covered with tears.All I could see were axe marks.My bedroom door was covered with them.I wanted them to stop. I wanted us to be a family again. A family that loved and cared for one another.

You’ll notice how much shorter this exercise was than exercise 1. Writing with your opposite hand really slows things down. Something else happened: Oleg was stepping out of a polished narrative he had clearly said many times and into new territory. How could I tell? The sentences are shorter. It doesn’t have the sense of a frequently told story because of the lack of narrative. I knew we were starting to get somewhere.

For exercise #3, I ask the writers to describe a photograph, real or imagined, that is most them, the truest representation of who they are as a person. I do this because often when people are writing they lose track of themselves, of the narrator they are, and this stops them from finishing projects, stops them really from getting to where they want to be in life because they have no true image of who they are.

This is what Oleg wrote:

Exercise #3

Most people don’t remember their childhood, but I learned that I’m different from most people. The memories made in the first 12 years of my life were filled with tragedy and pain.

You’ll notice that he didn’t describe himself at all. This is not an uncommon thing, but how can you tell a story of your life if you can’t see who you are? This is also a very frequent thing to happen when I work with adopted people. They have worked most of their lives to please others, to blend in, to do anything but be a strong, true presence. Everyone who doesn’t describe themselves in enough detail, so I can “see” them is asked to do this for homework and to send it to me. It’s really important.

My own picture is one that doesn’t even exist, but in it I’m seven and standing on a fence in Martha’s Vineyard, watching the hippies. My hair is long and tangled and I’m wearing a yellow nightgown and I am happy. This picture is so me—I’m outdoors; I’m unkempt; I’m in love with watching the world. I can write better when I know this is the place, the body, I write from.

I asked Oleg to redo exercise #1. I didn’t believe that if he had five minutes left to live he would present his summary of his life like a Ted Talk. This is what he wrote:

Exercise #4

I tried, but it wasn’t enough. I’m sorry. All I’m left with is a picture of you.

Your face, a constant reminder of joy.

Your hand, a constant reminder of love.

I wish we could relive those times knowing what we know now and having what we have now.

When he read this last one to me, I cried, and I heard that he was either crying close to crying. I didn’t even know he was talking to his birth mother, now deceased, in Russia. All I knew was that I heard truth coming from him in a way that was different from the first time he’d done this exercise. Granted, the first time the information was beautifully presented and emotionally charged, but what I’m after is a quality of authenticity and…risk. Really good writing, I think, risks something. It risks being wrong or being called ugly or exposing the writer or changing your life.

When I asked Oleg about the crying, he told me that the first twelve years of his life he cried a lot, cried for help. When he was in the orphanage he learned not to cry so he would not look weak, but now, he said, now when he cries he’s not asking for help and he’s not coming from a place of weakness. He knows crying re-energizes him. He tries to cry these days just so he can feel and process. Do you know how much courage this takes, how much intelligence? To make yourself feel what got buried?

Oleg lives a life of risk, courage and intelligence. He took charge when he was nine years old and he removed himself from his family and he put himself into an orphanage. The price for this decision was unthinkably high: he lost his mother, sister, home, friends, country and language.

But, I’ll tell you something, I think Oleg will, is living, an enormous life.

A life filled with love and high regard and action. I adore him and I have never even met him in person. I adore him because he represents a life truly lived to me.

When he first came to the United Stated to be with his new family, he just had a paper dictionary  to use to communicate. His didn’t know Russian: it was all on Oleg to learn English as quickly as possible. Entering school in a new country where you don’t speak the language is tricky enough, doing it in sixth grade where the cliques have already clicked is even more of a challenge.

He told me about going to school and about seeing the kids playing soccer during recess. Soccer. That’s an international sport. He tried to think of how to say “pass” because he figured if he could just get the kids to pass him the ball, he could figure out the rest. Finally, he stopped thinking, stepped onto the field and kicked the ball. He started running with the kids, and he was in the game.

He connected with a teacher who stayed after school to help Oleg with reading and with math. Later he connected with another teacher who connected Oleg with a teacher who also helped Oleg. And now here Oleg is in Austin, in full command of the English language, in full command of our culture, and he is the one connecting people; he is the one changing lives. He told me that a lot of people have helped him to get where he is and so he believes it’s his turn to contribute 110% in everything he does to help others.

Watch him go.  

He’s not even thirty years old and he has put together the conference Hear Me Now for adopted people and those who were foster children to be held in Austin this June. He is covering details in a way that only the most professional of organizers do—for example, he is taking care of flights and accommodations for his presenters. He is giving so much to his community already and there he is, putting people on planes and giving them hotel rooms. He is valuing his community and may it come back to him tenfold.

I had fun doing Write or Die with Oleg because he let himself be vulnerable with me. It’s a rare thing: the ability to be both strong and vulnerable. I appreciated him letting us go off the rails a bit, to treat the interview like a game, like a window. I am so curious about what gave Oleg the ability to take control of his life at such a young age, and to remain so flexible and open.

I can’t wait to meet him at the conference in Austin. I hope to see you there!