The Graduate Institute Blog
When I was a boy growing up in Central Pennsylvania, every summer my mother would pack up the station wagon and drive all five of us kids 100 miles south, far out into the country, where my grandparents had a cottage on the shores of Silver Lake. The summer months were an unending stream of swimming and canoeing and bare-foot lightning bug-catching, way past dark. There were also endless days and nights of storytelling. When you live on a lake, you get lots of relatives visiting, and a boy could learn a lot about the family by hanging around and listening—especially when the adults thought you weren’t.
Because the cottage was small, we kids slept in sleeping bags on army cots set up on the screened-in porch by the lake. Night after night I feel asleep to the sound of my relatives’ voices, rising and falling on the summer air, their laughter drifting like mist across the lake.
In my mind, family vacations and the telling of family stories are intertwined so closely that you can’t have one without the other. If you feel the same way, or if this sounds good to you and you would like to start a family storytelling tradition, here are some ideas to prime the pump and get the ball rolling (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?)
Start at the Beginning
One of the best ways to get started in family tales is by telling birth stories. We kids never tired of hearing my mother tell each of us about the day we were born. My own kids loved hearing over and over about the harried trips to the hospital and the rush of relief when the new arrival came slipping and sliding out into the world. I feel that one of our jobs as parents is to keep our children’s stories for them until they are old enough to carry them on their own. And one of the most important stories you can know is the story of your own birth.
An added bonus: if you would like to publish your birth stories on the web or read those of others, visit www.birthstories.com. You can enter your stories there and read the birth stories of others, recorded by category (longest labor, shortest labor, funniest, etc.) Before you know it, everyone will start chiming in with interesting versions of the big event, demonstrating once again that there is always another side of the story!
The Time of Your Life
Time is a tricky thing. Geniuses from Plato to Einstein to Miss Piggy have tried to figure it out and all come away scratching their heads. As a wise person once said: “Time is just nature’s way of making sure everything doesn’t happen at once.” One way to get a handle on time is to look at the events of your life using a LifeRope. This is nothing more than a length of rope with colored pieces of ribbon or yarn marking the important events of your life.
The idea itself is pretty simple: Beginning with your Birth Story, make a timeline on paper of the important events of your life. Lay these out on a length of rope with colored ribbons marking each event. As each person makes a LifeRope, stories will naturally come up. When you have them completed you can spread them out on the floor so that your child’s birth date falls on the spot on your rope where you marked the event of their birth (Get it?). What you will end up with is a fascinating (and very tactile) representation of your family’s life through time. For complete instructions, see my book Creating a Family Storytelling Tradition.
You can follow up the LifeRope project with a board game called Life Stories (available at www.talicor.com. This game uses decks of cards with story prompts such as, “Describe one of your best or worst teachers,” or “Tell about one of your first experiences of living away from home.” This is a great way to pass a summer night around the campfire —and hear some great family stories to boot!
Once you have explored your birth, life and family stories, you are ready to delve more deeply into your own ethnic and religious traditions. Paradoxically, the more grounded we are in the stories of our own culture, the greater our ability to live in a multicultural world and honor the stories of traditions other than our own. For a great essay on this process, try Claiming my Heritage by Doug Lipman at www.storydynamics.com.
Make a trip to the local library or book store and search out some read-aloud stories from the traditions you wish to explore. Reading aloud and storytelling are close cousins. Both activities can bring us closer to one another and to our ancestors. A good example is a trilogy of books I wrote on frontier women based on my own Scots-Irish family history in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania. See my website for details on The Bread Sister of Sinking Creek and others in this historical fiction series: www.robin-moore.com.
Do you hear what I hear?
Perhaps the greatest benefit of family stories lies in the simple and powerful act of listening. When we feel deeply listened to, it is possible to heal old wounds, build bridges, and re-affirm our connections to our family. True listening begins with the willingness to see the world through the eyes of another. I believe that most family problems can be compassionately addressed, if not eliminated entirely, by effective listening. Perhaps that is the greatest gift we can give each other in these summer weeks of vacation and family reunions.
Enjoy your stories, my friends…
The Writers Cohort in the Master of Arts in Oral Traditions is now immersed in an exciting process: Writing mini-memoirs based on visceral memories from their lives. Memoir is one of the fastest-growing genres in contemporary literature. Why?
Consider this quote from renowned writing teacher Natalie Goldberg:
"Think of the word: memoir. It comes from the French memoire. It is the study of memory, structured on the meandering way we remember. Memoir is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and become enlarged. This means that when we write, we give up ourselves. What is it you love and are willing to give to the page? It's why we write memoir, not to immortalize, but to surrender ourselves. It is our one great act of generosity. To drop that old yellow coat of our needs and desires and give pleasure through stories."
--Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir
As OT Program Coordinator Robin Moore notes, "To give pleasure through stories...what an elegant phrase! The paradox of writing memoir is that it is not about me. It is about my connections to the vast reservoir of family, regional and cultural memory."
As a way of exploring the power of personal narrative, Robin recently published a three-volume collection of traditional and original stories from the Pennsylvania Mountains, where his family has lived for more than 200 years. His ancestors immigrated from Northern Ireland in 1798 and cleared a forty-acre farm out of the wilderness. This series allowed him to return to the individual and collective memory that everyone in the Writers Cohort will be exploring in the coming months as they craft their own stories, taking what is so personal and making it universal....
Is an MFA degree truly the most viable route for emergent writers to hone their art and their discipline?
This month, Poets and Writers Magazine came out with their annual MFA issue. This includes an overview of 85 full-residency Master of Fine Arts programs in creative writing across the U.S., 29 low-residency programs, and a comparative look at their cost, student to faculty ratio, financial aid, and all the important details to consider when pursuing an advanced degree.
The magazine itself is also populated with ads for these programs. Most of them tout the same features: a list of key faculty, application deadlines, and a blurb attesting to the program's prestige. For the would-be MFA applicant, Poets and Writers offers a comprehensive and valuable resource.
But is an MFA really the best option for those who wish to develop a deeper command of creative writing? And why, in a publishing world that is changing at a faster pace than we can put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), is the MFA alone considered the premier degree for those who wish to transform from aspiring writer to Writer, or from Writer to Author?
Laurie Halse Anderson, New York Times bestselling author and two-time National Book Award finalist, explored these issues in a recent blog post, where she asked the vital question: Does MFA = Publication? (see http://madwomanintheforest.com/does-mfa-publication-wfmad-day-21/)
Laurie, who herself has no formal writing training despite her prolific success, points out that in no way does earning an MFA in writing guarantee publication. And, perhaps even more distressing, the experience of earning an MFA can be so stressful and disparaging, with certain programs placing great emphasis on criticism and competition, that many writers burn out before they even have a chance to submit their work to the world. "Publishers don't care how many creative writing classes you've taken or what your degree is in," Laurie says. "All they care about is the quality of your work."...
Magical," "Amazing," "Beautifully Synchronous," and "Thoroughly Enjoyable" were some of the words used to describe TGI's 7th Annual Celebration of Oral Traditions, which took place on May 18-19 at the Bethany campus. Hosted by the current colleagues in OT cohort 12, the weekend was created around the theme of "Living Your Passion." It provided a thrilling exploration of many different facets of the spoken word and the human voice, and how these support a life of passion and of spirit.
On Friday evening colleagues in OT 12 and OT 13, as well as several faculty and alumni, gathered foa candle-lighting service in honor of John Miles Foley. The evening proceeded with an Open Mic night that included a number of riveting, heart-warming, and amusing stories and songs. The performances ranged from traditional tales to personal stories, original ballads and cover songs, and even one unique musical piece played on a hammered dulcimer!
On Saturday the morning kicked off with an hour of Laughing Yoga presented by the talented mime/artist and laughter yoga teacher Robert Rivest. This was followed by a moving presentation with Bear Walker, a Native American storyteller and medicine man who imparted much compassion and mindfulness through his drumming, his stories, and his wisdom. Saturday's events culminated with a dynamic workshop with David Darling focused on "Music as Organic to Your Adult Nature." Attendees enjoyed the opportunity to tap into their innate connection to music and to experience the joys of improvisation and returning to a state of child-like play!
"I think we were privileged to experience four masters this weekend," said Jane Knox, a current colleague in OT cohort 12. "Robin Moore was a brilliant storyteller, Robert Rivest's movements were breathtaking, Bear Walker's energy was profound and David Darling's playing was exquisite."
Next year, the torch will be passed along to OT cohort 13, who will create their own weekend celebration for the future colleagues who are beginning the Oral Traditions program this fall.