a magpie question: what’s your story?

This is a response to Willow's latest Magpie Tales visual creative writing prompt.  Visit Magpie Tales and find all kinds of wonderful writers and poets and their takes on the prompt and giving hearty support to each others' creative efforts.  Give it a try! A creative challenge is good for you!

"Some may think that to affirm dialogue–the encounter of women and men in the world in order to transform the world–is naively and subjectively idealistic. There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans."  ~Paulo Freire

Once, when I was a teenager, I was away from home for a weekend with my family, and my [now former] stepfather kept repeating statements like “Jen is always so grouchy when she wakes up, ”or “ good MORNING grumpy!”  It was when he started to mock my “miserable” face I thought, how do you EXPECT me to feel?  I didn’t recall ever being grumpy or monstrous when I woke up in mornings, except, maybe, when my sister was hogging the shower and I was late for school.  What made me grumpy and irritated was being told over and over again that I was miserable.  And if I was miserable, I can assure you, it had nothing to do with the process of waking up; it was about someone else creating what I felt was an unfair and inaccurate picture of me and me feeling helpless to change it.

We understand our world through stories.  Family stories, history books, religious parables, pop songs, news reports, art, employee manuals, report cards, mathematical theories, police reports, gossip, family photo albums, fashions, magazine ads… a mosaic of stories creates the backdrop to our perceptions and helps to form the way we see things.  It’s up to you to decide if these things represent the reality of your experience.  And if they don’t – it’s up to you to tell your story in a way that does. 

When I was in university, I analysed lots of media.  I intensively read papers and watched news shows and movies and deconstructed and compared and scrutinized and examined and questioned, and to my naturally critical and questioning mind I was in my glory.  But more and more I was shocked to find the stories that were being used to define my community, my gender, my nation and my own role in my family were not how I was experiencing them myself. 

During that time a new provincial government came in that lowered taxes by way of reducing welfare benefits and education funding and punching other holes in the social safety net. 

This government knew the power of a story.  Suddenly, there were attacks on certain groups in the media, such as, coincidentally, teachers and single mothers.  I can tell you, this single mother did not enjoy being stereotyped as a lazy, beer swilling, cigarette smoking couch potato on welfare who fed her kids pancakes for dinner every night because didn’t know how to manage her grocery dollar.  One notorious politician of the day graciously gave welfare mothers tips on how to stretch their reduced budget by buying dented cans of tuna and day old bread.  Lots of people bought the stories these politicians were telling.  Lots of us didn’t. 

Whenever I speak with someone who is considering telling a personal story of any kind, I feel like something important is happening.  Because I believe that when a person tells her own story, she is taking ownership of it – she is claiming her history.  I believe that when someone tells his story, he is empowered to think critically about his place within his family, community, society, world.  And when a person is empowered, opportunities for change arise, both personally and socially.

Maybe a group can alter the history represented in a text book, or a politician can take advantage of stereotypes to create a new community understanding, or a family member can try to paint a picture of you.  But not one of them can change your story if you tell it.  It’s up to you to determine how you fit into the grand march of history.  

“Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen”. 
~From Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie


  1. Reply
    Susannah June 14, 2010

    I love this Jennifer!
    So many are boxed in by other peoples observations and stories about them and their lives – I had never thought about the act of telling your own story in this way before – what an empowering act.
    Love it – love it – love it! 🙂

  2. Reply
    Tumblewords June 14, 2010

    Powerful piece ~

  3. Reply
    brian miller June 14, 2010

    briliant magpie…and so true…there is power in stories to pass on those things which must not be forgotten and define how we are remembered…our ancestors knew this well…

  4. Reply
    Kathe w, June 14, 2010

    great piece- power to the story teller!!!

  5. Reply
    Lena June 14, 2010

    This really does make you sit up and think. Wise words indeed!

  6. Reply
    D.S. Lear June 14, 2010

    Beautifully written!

  7. Reply
    Jennifer June 14, 2010

    Yes, and the degree of “boxed in” can be much greater than my little experiences. This seed was first planted when I learned about educator Paulo Freire, and what he achieved with, most famously, the illerate, rural poor in his homeland Brazil. I could go on and on… glad you love it Susannah.

  8. Reply
    Jennifer June 14, 2010

    Thank you Tumblewords.

  9. Reply
    Jennifer June 14, 2010

    Thanks Brian – and you’re right. Maybe we’re complacent because we think our technologies will somehow save everything?

  10. Reply
    Jennifer June 14, 2010

    Thank you Kathe – second your motion!

  11. Reply
    Jennifer June 14, 2010

    To make someone sit up and think – I couldn’t be more gratified. Thanks Lena.

  12. Reply
    Jennifer June 14, 2010

    Thank you D.S.!

  13. Reply
    Sue J June 15, 2010

    Very well put. Thanks for writing it.

  14. Reply
    Jennifer June 15, 2010

    Thanks Sue.

  15. Reply
    Selma June 15, 2010

    I really like this too. It is important to claim our own stories for we are the only ones who truly know them, who can truly tell them. It is always disconcerting when someone sees our story differently from the way we do. I remember when I was at Uni and someone said to me: “Oh, your generation all think that.” It was something to do with politics and it wasn’t actually the case. It highlighted how people will put their own spin on things if they can.

  16. Reply
    Patience Ray June 15, 2010

    to act rather than be acted upon I think is one of the hardest but most important things in life. Or, in other words, to tell our story and own out role rather than letting someone else tell our story, making us act in their play. Very well written piece and a very worthy magpie. I really enjoyed reading this.

  17. Reply
    Jennifer June 15, 2010

    Thank you very much Patience. I’m glad you visited.

  18. Reply
    Jennifer June 15, 2010

    Yes, generalizations are dangerous, and show lack of critical thinking. They’re lazy. I was thinking of the lifelong learning process when I wrote this, but it also relates to your magpie topic, in that writing one’s story can be healing as well. I’m all about it gal!

  19. Reply
    willow June 15, 2010

    I feel empowered by this excellent post, Jennifer. I’m claiming my history and telling the story. Thanks for the inspiration.

  20. Reply
    Jennifer June 15, 2010

    Willow – I couldn’t be more gratified to hear it.

  21. Reply
    annie June 15, 2010

    Well said, Jennifer. I finally started unraveling myself from the manipulations of other peoples’ opinions and visions of me just a few short years ago. A lot of life has flowed under this aging bridge but I like were the life has arrived.
    Remember that old song – “Little Boxes”? If not, here are the lyrics: http://ingeb.org/songs/littlebo.html
    We don’t look the same.
    We are all unique, special.
    Each season renewed.

  22. Reply
    Jennifer June 15, 2010

    I can recall the moment when I consciously siezed ownership of my own perceptions (story) too. Thanks for visiting – and it’s great to read that lyric!

  23. Reply
    Uma Gowrishankar June 15, 2010

    This is a brilliant piece of writing Jennifer.

  24. Reply
    Jennifer June 15, 2010

    Uma, you’re so kind. And thanks for stopping by!

  25. Reply
    Little Hat June 15, 2010

    Spot on Jennifer. owning our own stories can be a bit challenging at times (in my experience). Even the bad bits can be helpful as you own and deal with them. I worked in ‘Community Theatre’ for many years in my 30s and 40s and the I saw that power of storytelling everytime we worked together to support that community to tell their story. Why? Because it wwas their story and often no one had ever bothered to ask them to share it.
    I still ask my team members in my workplace to tell us their story as the first step in joining the team.

  26. Reply
    Lyn June 15, 2010

    I really enjoyed this, but I love fiction that speaks the truth! To write…what a gift!!
    The Mags are great because we invent, explore, and lots of time our tales are real..but not totally true…love it!

  27. Reply
    Jennifer June 15, 2010

    Absolutely Lyn – I was in no way implying that personal stories are confined to non-fiction or creative non-fiction. That happens to be my medium in terms of writing, but I have explored storytelling in forms such as dance, music, collage, sculpture, photographs, poetry, theatre… and of course fiction. And I personally have utilised Magpie Tales to explore outside my normal creative non-fiction comfort zone, but occasionally, the prompt will inspire a non-fiction piece. In this piece I was celebrating all the forms and styles and personalities and truths that bloggers explore.

  28. Reply
    Jennifer June 15, 2010

    I love that you mentioned your work in community theatre Steve, because this piece originally started to be about Paulo Freire, whose teaching methods included community theatre and role play for illiterate rural poor. In this way, they were able to express their stories, build community and articulate and see critically the social situations that led to their poverty.
    And in my creative writing classes, every lesson plan I prepare includes a story. Stories incredibly powerful, as you say. And often difficult to own – I have a few myself that I am challenged in facing…

  29. Reply
    Carmen Henesy June 16, 2010

    Excellent post. In my 21 years as a forensic nurse, especially working with children, I saw so many who were totally brow beaten and made to feel valueless and unimportant, constantly belittled and discouraged. It was wonderful when they could, somehow, muster a sense of self worth and speak up for themselves, often for the first time, in their interviews with us.

  30. Reply
    fire byrd June 16, 2010

    This is nothing to do with your post!
    If you want to be involved in the beautiful world blog as I set it up then can you write to me at pradapixie@hotmail.co.uk then I can tell you what my plan is and you can decide if you want to be involved from the onset.

  31. Reply
    rel June 16, 2010

    Telling our story/stories is important if not for others, at least for ourselves. Then we can look at other people’s stories with a better understanding.

  32. Reply
    Jennifer June 16, 2010

    Indeed it must have been Carmen! In the top of the news in Canada right now is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Aboriginal Canadians who were sent to residential schools as children for the purpose of forced assimilation. This “assimilation” tore them away from their mothers and families and many of them were abused and neglected. This is a time for them to tell their stories, and all these years later for those stories to be acknowledged.
    Anyway, thanks for visiting.

  33. Reply
    Jennifer June 16, 2010

    I believe that to be absolutely true Rel.

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