Posts Tagged: the story

one of the turns in the road to here

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.

what if you read more stories like this?

In my last post I talked about how important stories are in how we understand and see things, and the impact they can have on individuals, communities and societies.  Telling stories about ourselves gives us power in that we can articulate where we place ourselves in the world and in our communities and families, and we can then see how to make changes or enhancements.  Telling stories about ourselves takes us out of a sea of faceless population and validates our experiences.  Telling our stories puts our voices out there into the grand dialogue of history

My latest favourite blog discovery, The Soaring Impulse, (via Selma's blogroll, thanks Selma!) illustrates the power of the story in the way we percieve. 

The problem of AIDS in Africa is huge.  Mind bogglingly huge.  So huge most of us have difficulty wrapping our brains around it and we tuck it in the backs of our minds as "way over there on a distant continent" with our, probably quite sincere, hopes that it will eventually go away.  We might contribute money to the problem but we probably feel it's like throwing a penny in a giant, bottomless well. 

But then you encounter a single story about one doctor and one man, and the problem is no longer a sea of faceless people on a distant continent, it is one person.  One man who might have a lot in common with you and me.  And you might think that penny didn't fall into a vast well, it went to help one real person.

I dare you to not be moved by Maithri's poetic prose and his stories of love and compassion and hope while he works to help one person at a time - and seeing a world of possibility in each one. 

Read his latest story here:  On difference.

 Soaring Impulse

The Soaring Impulse

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!

 Magpiepencils 
"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