Feel the Fireworks?


I grew up in Astoria, Queens; an Italian enclave, just outside New York City, my grandparents lived there too. My paternal grandmother’s brothers and sisters lived down the road apiece, in the once hardscrabble neighborhood of Ravenswood. Fireworks were legal in the mid 70’s, though tricky to get and dangerous to use, and the dark-alley Ravenswood streets seemed the perfect place for my great-uncle Pat–short for Pasquale–and the “old-enough” contingent of his nephews and sons to play with whatever fireworks he’d managed to score.

He usually scored big. There wasn’t a firework available on the market back then that we didn’t get: Smoke Bombs, M-80’s, and Ladyfingers, the “big-boys” started the festivities at dark. I covered my ears and hid behind my mother to wait out the fear in my heart, stayed alert to the Ground Spinners, Snaps, and Snakes. I liked the pretty ones, the Roman Candles and Skyrockets, the Willows and Waterfalls; those beauties inspired in me bold dreams of a future beyond the confines of the neighborhood.

The youngest of the “little ones” and the only girl who—according to the double standard my family frequently employed–had to, “Stay back!” and “Watch-out!” My mother strengthened my resolve with gruesome stories of children–just like me–who had lost limbs or gone blind lured in by the thrill–and ignorant to the dangers–of fireworks. I heeded my mother’s words and secretly hoped—one day—I could create such suspense.

I adored the hot New York night-sky, lit like it was on The Fourth; the explosives, the riot of color, the freedoms we celebrated (most of us were the children and grandchildren of immigrants) resonated with me in a big way, even when I was little. The Fourth of July has always been my favorite holiday.

It also happened to be uncle Pat’s birthday. Since mine was a few days later, and there was room enough on his cake for a few more Sparklers, The Fourth of July kicked-off my birthday too. This biological fact seemed to bode well for a future full of the kinds of freedoms I craved. Throughout our young lives, my parents took every opportunity to remind my older brother and me that we lived in a great country: We’d be free to vote, to be who we were, and to say what we wanted, as long as my parents liked the sound of it.

I didn’t understand the beauty of irony, couldn’t yet see how internal conflict could create compelling character traits, I only felt constrained. A good number of things I wanted to say and be were strictly prohibited by our family’s norms. On the rare-occasion I slipped, said something colorful—revealed what I was thinking or feeling about someone in the family or my parents relationship or money or, when I got older, sex—my parents would invariably turn to one another and say, “We’ve got a real fire-cracker on our hands.” I got the feeling I might be dangerous, a little criminal.

Fire-works became illegal, Uncle Pat passed, and most of our family in Ravenswood—with the exception of one or two extraordinarily brave souls— moved on: We felt the losses. The fireworks might not be as impressive up in Connecticut or out on Long Island but the schools and the homes, the back yards and the beaches…well, my parents generation did what they had to do to give their kids what they thought was best.

Pretty soon, we moved to Long Island too.

We had a few years where we went to the beach or were invited to back yard barbeques on The Fourth. We enjoyed ourselves but it wasn’t the same. When my father, who’d always kept a crash pad in Astoria, and his pals discovered a bar/restaurant called The Crab House, it’s Queens-side waterfront views of Manhattan weren’t lost on them. Leveraging the Grucci brother’s Macy’s firework display, a friend of my father’s started running a cancer benefit in the parking lot. For the next decade or so, we had front row seats.

So close, we’d leave with debris from the fireworks in our hair, on our faces, in our lungs. No matter, we’d sat right under them in total awe. Live, against the backdrop of the piped in patriotic music and the city’s frenetic vibe, the display is pure magic…undeniably, quintessentially, New York magic.

The deliberateness with which the fireworks are choreographed–the perfectly timed intention to make you feel proud and patriotic–the propensity to feel privileged–is so powerful live. And, at the same time, no matter how many times I saw it, the gamut of emotions always felt personal and spontaneous: how teary I got, the renewed sense of inspiration I took away, the gratitude I had for my freedoms, the determination to get free from whatever constraints I might have felt of the moment…until I looked up into my father’s face and saw that he was crying too.

You’d be hard pressed to find my father and me in the same “target market.” And yet, sitting together under the New York night sky on The Fourth of July, year after year, the two of us moved to tears by a universally appealing truth expressed in those fireworks. Namely, that our freedom is a gift. What prison we make of it…that’s another story most of us know too well.

You see, a good story arc is more like a rainbow than a target. That isn’t to say that defining your audience isn’t supremely important, it is. But it won’t matter if you can’t also go deep and fly high and wide. It won’t have impact if you don’t share yourself while you inform, inspire, and–to a great extent–control most of what your audience takes away.

Most people have a hard time revealing themselves. They worry that if they share themselves they’ll come off as arrogant, self-serving or narcissistic. They worry that if their content is too detailed or specific, they’ll lose people. They’re writing speeches to perform all the while worried about being seen and heard. They’re writing copy to sell services they never create. They’re writing chapters hiding themselves in characters that don’t ring true because sometime, somewhere along the way, they got the message that their thoughts and feelings are dangerous.

Imagine a firework operating that way? We call those duds.

When you’ve done your due diligence as a writer, your audiences—readers and spectators alike—are free to think. They can follow you and find room for themselves too:

  • I never had that particular experience but it’s just like the time I….
  • I didn’t major in marketing but it’s got a lot in common with telling a well- crafted story. I can do that!
  • I’m not an experienced copy writer but I understand that I need to show people that working with me will save them money, time, and aggravation.

When your information is solid, when it’s supported with good research and strategic storytelling, your sharing becomes an act of generosity that transcends boxes, constraints, and targets. And guess what?  When the connection is clear, together, you and your audiences feel free to change, explore, inform, inspire, and take action.

There’s nothing more attractive than the honest expression of yourself and your experience enlivening whatever it is you teach. Take a look at the night sky on The Fourth and tell me it isn’t beautifully familiar, tell me you don’t want to be self-expressed, tell me you don’t want to soar.

Better yet, tell me you do.

What’s next? Drop me a line. Tell me how you’re feeling, tell me about how you want to explode on the scene, tell me about the fiercely creative project your working on, tell me how you feel about this piece but don’t tell me you’re a dud; I don’t believe that for a second.

And Happy Fourth of July; I hope you feel the fireworks.