I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the personal story these days. Not that such thoughts are exactly new – anyone who’s read the stuff on the other pages of this space will know it’s exactly why I develop and deliver courses in writing stories and why I’m here. But in the past few days I’ve read some stuff by some fellow bloggers who have illustrated again how the personal story can take something – something so big, so out of control that we feel powerless to understand it, let alone do anything about it – and make it, well, understandable. The personal story gives you cause to experience something like, say, a tanked economy or a major flood disaster, through the eyes and mind of the storyteller – and through that experience you find a bit of yourself reflecting back.
Most semesters, I wind up telling my class about a couple of students I had when I worked for a short time in a small private “school” teaching English as a Second Language. Ronaldo* and Michel* were required to spend six hours a day in this little class because they had been injured on the job and were receiving workers’ compensation benefits. In order for these benefits to continue, these guys had to be enrolled in a school like this to learn some alternative skills so that they could go on and find different jobs and get off the benefits.
I can tell you it wasn’t much fun for them. Michel had been in Canada for more than ten years, Ronaldo more than twenty; both employed in labour jobs since soon after their arrival. Ronaldo injured his back when he fell down a hole. He found it difficult to sit in the classroom for six hours a day, and sometimes would take his book to the back of the room and rest it on the top portion of a computer desk so he could stand up during the lesson. Michel had a repetitive stress injury and suffered substantial pain doing small tasks, like writing and using a computer.
They would talk about how they’d loved their jobs. Ronaldo worked in the Public Works department, and he told me he felt such satisfaction when he got ready for work every day. He loved the physical work, the look and feel of the hardhat on his head and the “good” tired he felt when he got home at night. Michel had always felt a great sense of pride in that he came over to Canada alone, worked long enough to eventually send for his family, and ultimately start his own business.
You might, then, imagine how drilling through pages of ESL grammar workbooks every day didn’t mean a whole lot to these guys. Each was competent, intelligent and hardworking, and would have much preferred to be out working than stuck in a classroom plodding through sentence structures and verbs and tenses and collecting compensation benefits. They were allowed a few sick days a year, and no vacation. No vacation. Collecting worker’s compensation benefits precluded them from the meagre two-week vacation the rest of us are allowed by law.
Knowing that adults have meaningful learning experiences only if they are able to apply what is being taught to their own lives and circumstances, I took every chance I got to apply their personal lives to the lessons. Thus I heard many stories – about their favourite meals, fishing and camping trips, family gatherings, soccer matches, weddings, boyhood games and the challenges they faced when they first came over to a new culture.
At the time I was participating in a minor travel writing competition – and it occurred to me that these guys could learn to write English much more effectively if they were writing their own travel stories. At first they said “NO WAY….I don’t have that kind of education….I can’t write a story….I couldn’t even do that in my home language!”
“Pffft” I said.
I assured them that we would work slowly – sentence by sentence. Each would prepare an outline and that turned out to be not so bad. Then they worked one paragraph at a time, present that paragraph on the board, wherein we, as a group, would critique it and make grammatical and spelling corrections.
They were empowered. They found pleasure in it. And then magic happened – both Ronaldo and Michel purposefully went after bringing out the beauty in their minds’ images with techniques that were way ahead of their appointed learning schedule, according to those dreaded workbooks, things like metaphor and symbolic language – naturally and without prodding by me. They closed their eyes, saw the images and put them down on paper. I’ll never forget those images – Ronaldo’s sand that looked and felt like fine sugar, or Michel’s soft moon hanging heavy over the spruce forest. Mostly I won’t forget the pleasure of living the stories through them.
The best thing learned was this: One story, down on paper, meant it belonged out there on the stage with all the others. And after being sequestered in a small classroom to plod through meaningless grammar lessons as though they were being imprisoned and punished for their chance injuries, these guys managed to turn the language into something that mattered to them.
I had to leave this job not long after because it just didn’t pay me enough to live on, and I’d found another one that did. But I’ll never forget Ronaldo and Michal for showing me what I’d sensed all along – that personal stories are not only important documents of the lives of people and their families, but they invite us to look at ourselves and others and find elements of our experiences that are shared. I suppose that’s the humanity part – there even when we’re seemingly worlds apart.
*Ronaldo and Michel are pseudonyms.
When I was a little kid I became enamoured with the camera tracking shot – that particular kind that moves along over the landscape or cityscape, as when the lens is pointed through a car or train window. My earliest recollection of noticing a shot like that was seeing what was probably a National Film Board flick in some grade school classroom. I don’t remember anything else about the movie, just that continuous image of a roadside unfolding out the side of a moving car. And many times over my lifetime I’ve looked out a car or train window and imagined my eyes were a camera like that, recording a ribbon of land, every now and then settling on some random image before it moves off out of range.
Maybe it’s what that kind shot was meant to achieve that captured my imagination – along with whatever road trip, running away or rambling was going on in the movie, there was also the implication of thinking; some kind of mental moving forward, moving away or moving on. And it was like a character could suspend him or herself outside everything and pause to contemplate there, while the world rolled on beyond the window. There is a restfulness in such a shot – but also the suggestion that a character is wrestling with something internally – that there is change happening beneath the surface.
That amateur theory would make sense applied to one of my favourite movies from the 1970s, The Last Waltz, which was filmed during a time when these kinds of shots were in vogue, and by a director who made a number of really famous tracking shots, Martin Scorsese. The movie opens with the camera following the sidewalk around the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, along which stands a long line people quietly waiting to see the final performance of The Band. With the rambly moving image of a beat up part of town, Scorsese creates a melancholy setup for the film. Sounds from the final moments of the concert and The Band coming on for a final encore build up as the camera meanders along.
The movie would go on to show members of The Band telling stories of ‘life on the road’ and their reasons for wanting to end it. And thus the opening shot conveys the contemplation of an “ending” – but also an “unfolding” of new directions. The shot gets the viewer thinking about where this band has been and what’s next, and asks the same questions about popular music in general.
Of course I didn’t think about anything like that when I was a kid and sat there watching that scene in the NFB film. It just appealed to a thoughtful, sometimes dreamy kid who even then took a lot of pleasure in observing the world around her.
This morning I looked out the window during an above-ground leg of my train journey and once again imagined my eyes were recording that rambling tracking shot of the city outside. And it occurred to me that maybe this long moving scene of a world is something my subconscious has been connecting to all along – finding the images and events that provoke thought and understanding. And it’s always been the random ones that seemingly come out of nowhere that I’ve loved best.