I Am a Storyteller

“I am a storyteller. The type that went from place to place, gathered people in the square and transported them, inspired them, woke them up, shook their insides around so that they could resettle in a new pattern, a new way of being. It is a tradition that believes that the story speaks to the soul, not the ego… to the heart, not the head. In today’s world, we yearn so to ’understand’, to conquer with our mind, but it is not in the mind that a mythic story dwells.”
Donna Jacobs Sife

I am a storyteller. There. I claimed it.

My friend Jennifer Simpson wrote a blog post on A Writer’s March titled “Day 28: You are Good Enough.” It’s about losing faith in her writing, and then reclaiming it.

I refer to that voice that questions my faith as the what’s-the-use demon. “What’s the use?” she (in my case, it’s a she) says. “You’re not as good as (fill in the blank). Don’t sound like (fill in the blank). Never will. Who do you think you are anyway?”

Now I know what to say to her. “I am a storyteller.”

If I want to get poetic, I could say, “I am a storyteller, bitch.”

Thirty-four years ago, I recorded my grandmother’s life story. I was about to turn 30. She turned 90 in the same year. I titled her story “Kid, I Can’t Remember Nothin’” because that’s how she answered my first question, “What’s your earliest memory, Grandmother?”

Turns out she remembered a lot: her father returning empty handed from the Cherokee Strip Oklahoma land rush; moving to Lawton, Oklahoma, when there were tents, and then there were houses; seeing Geronimo when he was an old warrior being held captive at Fort Still, Oklahoma; her brother cutting off her braid while she slept in a hammock; marrying her husband; giving birth to five children; the day World War I ended; flying on a jet plane for the first time; the death of her oldest daughter.
At the end of our final interview she spoke about how strange memory was—how things long ago were kind of a haze. “It seems like I can’t remember much of any thing anymore,” she said.

“But, Grandmother,” I said knowing I had the hours of tape that proved it, “it seems like you’ve remembered a lot.”

“Kid,” she said, “you can’t believe half of what I say.”

I decided I would believe all of what she said because it was her story. Her narrative. Her life as she experienced it. It was the truth from her perspective.

I grew up with a lie about women writers. Women couldn’t write interesting stories because they were concerned about things of the home—they didn’t have interesting life experiences like say, Hemingway. So how could their stories be interesting?

After I finished my grandmother’s story, I interviewed a 92-year old physician who had created small emergency centers throughout San Francisco. He encouraged me to visit the University of California San Francisco Medical Center where his medals and awards were on display.

I did as he asked. The medals and awards were hidden away in a drawer in the library.

In our final interview he told me that he had never wanted to be a physician. “But it was in my father’s will that I go to medical school, so that’s what I did,” he said. “Miss Hogan,” he added, “People remember my work, but they don’t remember me.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his awards and medals were no longer on display for all to see.

I had gone into the interviews with him thinking his would be a much more interesting story than that of a woman who married, raised children, and buried a husband and a daughter. My grandmother was certainly no trailblazer. She said, almost offhandedly, that she had wanted to be a telegrapher, but there were so many at home (8 siblings) that she thought it was time she got married. She was only 19.
As I drove home from that final meeting with him, I realized that his story, his narrative, had not been as compelling as my grandmother’s because it did not have the emotional engagement with his life that my grandmother had.

The physician’s story, as it turns out was summed up in his confession, “I never wanted to be a physician, but it was in my father’s will that I go to medical school.”

A life story determined by the will of another, rather than the authentic yearning of oneself.
Writing is, I think, a good metaphor for living one’s life. It is fraught with the insecurity that one might not be good enough, ripe for the demon voice creeping into the space you need to clear so you can be open to the writing muse.

“. . . story speaks to the soul, not the ego . . . to the heart, not the head. In today’s world, we yearn so to ’understand’, to conquer with our mind, but it is not in the mind that a mythic story dwells.
Donna Jacobs Sife

“What’s the use? Who do you think you are anyway? You’re just a woman,” the demon asks.

“I’m a storyteller. That’s who I know I am. It’s not that I’m just a woman. It’s that I am just another human being trying to find and live my story. So bite me bitch,” I reply.

In the end, for my stories to resonate, I have to have faith in them. It is not an act of bending the stories to my will. Rather it is letting them speak through the heart and soul of the life that I have lived.

I am a storyteller.

Bursting into Bloom

I hope that you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves

I suffer from multiple interest syndrome. I not only want to write, I want to see the writing in a three dimensional form. I like acting, and after directing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, I discovered that I love directing.

The common denominator is story. A writer writes the story; the actor tells it through acting. What I decided my role as director was to set the stage so the story could be told and heard.

Robert McKee, who presents – well performs – a seminar called “Story” refers to story as a metaphor for life. I would agree.

When I first took this seminar in 2000, I was emerging from a period of tremendous loss – loss so great that I was in a constant state of shock, without even knowing it. These were not losses caused by the death of someone; but rather the loss of the belief that love would always win out. I had lost the family that was my stepchildren.

For anyone who has been a stepparent (perhaps, but maybe not, particularly a stepmother), you know that that relationship is a delicate one – delicate because the heart is at once delicate and durable. Parent and child need and want to be loved by each other, but that is far more complex than Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can accommodate.

To preserve everyone’s privacy, I don’t want to go into details. But what I learned about being a stepmother was that I wasn’t issued a bulletproof vest. So when the pain of confusion broke out, I got caught in the gunfire. I felt as if someone ripped my heart from out of my chest, shot it full of holes, then shoved it back into my chest.

The surprise for me was that my heart, riddled with bullet holes, kept on beating. I had survived, and had to learn to live with it.

McKee’s seminar took place over three days. As he took us deeper into story, using examples from films, I found myself drawn onto a path that awakened my numbed heart and gave me a way to experience the feelings I had put on ice. I saw the story of what happened to me; saw everyone with compassion; saw how everyone acted as if they were right, from their point of view.

Being able to see the story of what happened to me, allowed me to see the humanness of everyone involved, including me. Allowed me to see that love is not about surviving – it is about thriving.

I had been blaming myself for having gotten so involved with people; that it was my fault that I got hurt.

But, seeing the story – a story that involved a cast of characters, allowed me to see without blame or judgment. I saw it with compassion – compassion for being human.

It created a metaphor for I could feel the experience without the trauma.

As I started this post, I was thinking of writing that stories are necessary for our survival. But in truth, story is required for us to thrive. To let stories happen to us, we need to be willing to experience the gamut of emotion, from joy to grief, from elation to disappointment, from success to failure.

We need to experience our lives with the compassion for being human, water our stories with our blood and tears and laughter till they bloom, till we ourselves burst into bloom.

Note: I eventually got my family back. We all had to risk exposing the tenderness of our hearts — to trust that the heart is both delicate and durable. I have no regrets.