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.

No One Puts Baby in the Corner

It’s true. In loss there is gain. Closing down 4th Street Studio freed up a bookcase for my writing shed, where the floor had started to serve double duty as a place to stack books.

I put the bookcase in the southeast corner of the shed, and then pondered which books would find a home there. I had thought about putting books by women writers in one place. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to fully execute that plan.

So, I culled through my books, selected those written by women, and placed them in the new bookcase. They filled three shelves.

I stood by the door and gazed over my rediscovered floor. I looked at the bookcase that covers the back wall, the one that faces me as I enter my writing shed. I looked to the southeast corner, pleased that I had executed my plan to have women writers in one place.

I turned, opened the door, stepped into my garden, and closed the door behind me. With the click of the latch, I realized I had put women writers in the corner.

Thanksgiving, 1960. I was eleven, so was my cousin Patty. We had dinner at her house, the only child of my Aunt Lucille, my mother’s older sister. Our two families lived in the same town.

Patty and I had been gleeful before dinner because it was my brothers’ week to do the dishes. There were two of them, one to wash and one to dry. That’s how we did it at my house. One of us always had the week off. These were the days before we had dishwashers.

It was as we were finishing the last bites of whipping-cream-laden pumpkin pie that the sword fell on us. My aunt told my brothers to go out and play, brought Patty and me into the kitchen and ordered us to do the dishes.

“This is what a woman’s lot in life is,” she said as the piles of dishes, glasses, greasy pans, serving platters, bowls, silverware, and cooking utensils loomed over us. “Get used to it.”

My brothers went out to play, my parents and aunt and uncle moved to the living room where they sipped cocktails, and Patty and I sat at the kitchen table, arms folded, furious with a ferocity that our eleven-year old bodies could barely contain.

I don’t remember doing the dishes. But I have a visceral memory of those moments Patty and I sat with the ferocity of our folded arms — it was my first experience with impotent rage.

The message had been dutifully delivered to me by my aunt: domestic life was a drudgery to which women were chained by divine decree. To step outside it was to betray the sacrifice generations of women in my family had made: the nourishment of their spirits.

My aunt’s resentment for her sacrifice came across loud and clear. If giving up the nourishment of her spirit was good enough for her, then by god, it was good enough for my cousin and me. Impotent rage was what defined us as women – it was the tie that bound us together.

I think I was in my thirties before I discovered the joy of creating a home, cooking a dinner, sharing it with guests. I even have come to learn there is pleasure in cleaning up after a meal – learned that it can be the period at the end of a well-written sentence.

What has been more of a learning curve to me is feeling entitled to nourishing my spirit.  Writing, for me, comes from my spirit – that animating energy that allows me to experience my life in this unique human body called Karen Hogan. It is that spirit, that animating energy, that leaves when we die, so to not nourish it is to – well, I think it’s a sin to not nourish it.

When I first saw Dirty Dancing, I was a little embarrassed when Patrick Swayze confronts Jennifer Grey’s father (the wonderful Jerry Orbach), tells him, “No one puts Baby in the corner,” then leads her to the stage where they dance a dance that revels in the joy of bodies moving to music.

I wasn’t embarrassed the last time I watched it, just a few months ago. This time, I saw that when Swayze approached her, she really was sitting in a corner as music swelled around her. The corner left her no room to move to the music, and moving to the music had awakened her spirit. It had been her coming of age as a woman.

After leaving my writing shed that afternoon, I argued with myself about whether it really mattered that I had put my women writers in the corner. It was just a place in my writing shed I tried to convince myself.

It was not a night of restful sleep. I would say that it pretty much fit the description of fitful sleep. It was near dawn when I realized, it really did matter when women writers are put in the corner.

The next morning I returned to the shed and rearranged my books. The books by women writers now face me as I enter. The energy in the room feels clean and light.

The article in which The New York Times announced that Jennifer Eagan had won the Pulitzer Prize also noted that Jonathan Frazen had not won it. The photo accompanying the article was of Jonathan Frazen, not Jennifer Eagan.

It’s time to stop putting women writers in the corner.