Insights and Musings from TGI’s Emerging Writers

Story Creation begins with asking the Right Questions

Last weekend’s session with the Writing and Oral Traditions cohort was like being at a retreat.

The Annual Connecticut Storytelling Festival and Conference at Connecticut College in New London was filled with music, laughter and most of all, good stories.

My favorite presenter was nationally-known storyteller Donald Davis. He was mesmerizing and funny from his first story Friday night, “Come Home with Me,” to his last “gem” on Saturday night. Through his real-life stories about his childhood, you felt like you knew the characters he described as you listened to him. There was a universal feeling of commonality in all of his stories that everyone could relate to.

Donald’s description of his parents, grandmother and little brother, were tender, warm, compassionate and funny. I wondered how he could remember all of those stories. In his Saturday afternoon workshop, titled “So You Think You Don’t Have Stories?”, he explained in a simple, straightforward way that one can find stories just by looking into their past.

Asking the Right Questions

Donald started the session with a look at early education. When a child is in grade school up to Junior High, after they read a story, they’re asked what happened. In high school, after students read a story, they’re asked what the plot was. Donald pointed out that those two questions end the creativity process. Those questions make a student feel that something has to happen or else they don’t have a story. It’s difficult to find a plot if the idea for a story hasn’t formed yet.

Donald doesn’t find stories by asking himself what happened; he goes back in time and remembers places and people. Donald writes lists of the places he’s lived and visited to start gathering bits and pieces for his stories. For example, if you ask Grandma about something that happened in her life, she would probably say nothing or wouldn’t be able to think of anything she thinks is important. If you ask Grandma to describe her house; what the rooms looked like, who came to visit, what she liked to cook and what her family liked to eat, she would tell you everything she could think of. Through those reminisces, stories form. “Uncle Grover” may have been over one night when something happened and there’s a story. A story can be found in the midst of an uneventful memory on an average day. You may hear an inverted sentence or something out of the ordinary.

Donald makes another list of people. He writes down all the people he knew from immediate family to distant relatives, teachers, neighbors, classmates, family friends, church people, all the way down to the postman. Then, he goes back many times in his mind to those memories, concentrating, until they become clear. Years ago, he wanted to write about his childhood neighborhood, but he couldn’t remember much in the beginning. As he kept at it, going back in time to the same place, he was able to name all of the neighbors on his old street.

Sadly, Donald lost his wife last December, but he still keeps her alive in his stories. Sometimes all that’s left living of a person is their obit and their story. He doesn’t invent stories and he keeps them positive, so he doesn’t have to worry about offending anyone. He finds the humor in storytelling through descriptiveness. In laughter, there’s recognition. The audience has to feel the emotion to be there with him.

Donald used “The Odyssey” as a model for everything. Leaving home to find home. When you go back, home is the same, but we’re not. We’re changed by the journey. All of the scraps of life we gather up in our lives are like quilt scraps. They’re all there in bits and pieces and we, as storytellers, have to put them into piles, and select our stories from them.

If you build a portrait for your story, it won’t move. There has to be progress, everything comes back again and the end is at the story’s starting point. What did we learn? And, you don’t have to be chronologically correct all the time. In memoir, you can add some truth to a place in the story where it fits best and the story will still be real and authentic.

I heard every word Donald said Saturday afternoon and it got me thinking way back in my past, to all of those people who touched my life in many different ways. Not only the good but the bad, because there are stories there too, to flesh out and learn from.

The exercises Donald uses to find stories were the highlight of my weekend because I like to know how things work. I came away with so much rich material in my own life, I’ll never be without a story again!

Here is a story I created using the techniques I learned at the workshop:

Grandma’s Wake

The summer I graduated from high school my maternal grandmother, Susan, died. She was the matriarch of her family (see vintage family photo above) and every one of her four living children behaved while she was living. What happened after was a saga that continued for many years.

My grandfather designed the plans for the big white house that sat on a large corner block of Woodin Street and Glemby Street. The front door with the vestibule was on Woodin. If someone rang the doorbell, my grandmother wouldn’t answer because she didn’t know them. Her house was spotless and everyone took their shoes off in her back enclosed porch or you stayed outside.

After the wake, everyone (including people I didn’t know) went back to my grandmother’s house. This was a complete surprise because my grandparents lived quietly in their later years. They never had parties or people over except their children and even then, they were kept in the kitchen or on the back porch.

That night, in late June after my Grandmother’s wake, every light was on in her house. The front door was wide open and the vestibule door was open. The little anti-chamber had small black and white tiles on the floor and there was a closet in there. No one ever entered the vestibule and I was afraid to look in the closet, but that night, it was overloaded with hanging coats and coats thrown on the floor. There were people everywhere. My grandfather sat in his chair in the enclosed porch, oblivious to what was going on around him. Everyone was walking on my grandmother’s white rugs with their shoes on. Someone moved her stuffed dog off the white couch and it was on its side on the floor. Drinks sat on her expensive mahogany coffee and end tables without coasters. As I watched the pools of sweat from the glasses make rings on the wood, I pictured my grandmother’s face if she were there.

I felt uneasy as I went from room to room, sober and sad, watching her family and strangers smoke and drink all over my grandmother’s beautiful, immaculate house. She wasn’t even buried yet and people were sitting in her sunroom off the living room, on the couch where she used to lie when she suffered from “palpitation” attacks. I always thought those “palpitations” were serious, because she was incapacitated for a whole day. You never knew if grandma was going to keep a date because if her “palpitations” occurred. My mother would pronounce grandma out of commission for the day, but the event would go on anyway.

I walked back through the living room into the kitchen where my Uncle Babe, the youngest, was opening the refrigerator door. He was a nice quiet guy, and the complete opposite of his siblings. I was looking for something normal in the house that night and he seemed to be acting like himself.

With his back to me, Uncle Babe asked how I was doing.

I replied, “Grandma would die all over again if she were here tonight and saw all of this.”

Then, just as he was taking a large bottle of soda off the shelf, a dozen eggs fell right out and shattered all over the floor! He turned around and looked at me.

I said, “Oh, Grandma’s watching and she doesn’t like this at all!”

A Memorable Cohort Experience

The entire Storytelling weekend was an experience I’ll never forget. It far surpassed my goals, objectives and visions. I enjoyed every second of it. Spending the weekend with the cohort and bonding even more through this experience was very special to me.

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A New Creation Story

Following the Institute-Wide Weekend and the immersion into the Universe’s story as well as the ways, beliefs and stories of indigenous people, I researched creation stories. Since my mentorship involves weaving, I researched several creation weaving stories from the Greek to the Hopi and Navajo.

 

I then spun my own tale:

In the time before, The deep time before time, there was Weaver Woman. She lived in the darkness, velvet soft blackness, in the quiet and stillness. Weaver Woman sat at her spinning wheel creating beauty from nothingness. Bountiful mounds of color surrounded her, spilling over in magnificent shades from deep and rich to the barest suggestion of tint.

From the depth of her heart, from her imagination, from her spirit, she began to weave Creation. Her shuttle, gliding back and forth through the darkest warp threads, formed the sun out of brilliant gold, orange and crimson. The moon, she wove of luminous grays. Across the black cloth of the universe, she wove in sparkling silver stars, scattering them across the expansive darkness.
With the sun, the moon and the stars, came light and Weaver Woman’s loom set a rhythm to creation, creating day with dawn’s hint of lavender before the advent of day’s cerulean and sapphire blues. She wove twilight with its pinks and rose before the deepening of an ebony night.

She wove water, from tranquil clear lakes and ponds to powerful, briny oceans, their surfaces woven from turquoise to the boldest of blues, greens and grays. She wove in smooth and calm ripples and with shuttle flying, she wove the waves, ferocious and crashing.

Weaver Woman looked at the open skies and as she whispered over her loom, she laced the wind with wispy swaths of clouds that drifted across the sky. She added puffs of white clouds, gently round, to float and later, the thunderclouds that billowed and towered in roiling storms with slashing arcs of lightning to brighten the angry skies. Weaver Woman looked at her loom, at the coverlet of the universe she had created. She was pleased.

From her treasure of yarns and threads, she began to weave the Earth. Filling her shuttle with browns, greens, yellows and reds, she worked the weft into creating the center of the earth, the sold, dense deepest center. She added soaring mountains capped with white, jagged ridges and rolling hillsides. She carefully selected ribbons of ruby and scarlet, pinks and purples, and yellows and she embroidered cherry-blossoms, roses, heather and daffodils. She entwined the ribbons and spread capes of wildflowers across the land. Trees and plants were created to live in the Earth’s rhythm, created to the beat of the treadle. Weaver Woman looked at Creation and she smiled.

Yet something was missing. Her Creation was alive and pulsing. It had music. The music of the wind and the waves filled the earth. But something was lacking.

Weaver Woman’s heart spoke to her. She was lonely, weaving above her creation. Thoughtfully, she took her shuttle and setting her warp threads and pressing her treadles, she bent close to her cloth and began to work. She toiled for a long time. Day and night chased itself across the sky, with the moon changing its face as it traveled. The Earth saw the seasons of life and death, of snow and rebirth.

When Weaver Woman was done, she settled back and gazed at all she had created. Her treasures of yarn and thread and ribbon were almost gone. She tied off the warp threads and gently took her Creation from the loom. Holding it before her, she smiled. Her heart was filled with joy at the scene before her. Birds of all colors, their feathers delicately sewn into the cloth we scattered in flight across the skies. Sea mammals, fish and shell creatures teemed in the waters. Animals, majestic and minute, elaborate and plain,

trekked across plains, climbed mountainsides, built homes in trees and grasses, rested in shady glens and steaming jungles. Birdsong rode the breeze along with the chirps and buzzing of insects. Weaver Woman was delighted.

But it was when Weaver Woman lovingly smoothed her hand over her Creation and gently whispered her heart's wish to it, that her Creation was finally complete. For on the breath of that wish, humans took their first breath and began to fulfill her heart's deepest desire. They loved and brought forth children. In gratitude, they cared for the earth, for the water and all of life. They gave thanks for the sun and the rain, for the earth’s bounty and at night, they sang to the stars.

Weaver Woman held Creation to her heart, embracing it for just a few beats before she unfurled it and flung it out to float on her prayers forever.

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If Heaven is a Place Where ABC

“God who knows all things, I have no prayer book and I do not know any prayers by heart. But you know all the prayers. You are God. So this is what I am going to do. I am going to say the alphabet, and I will let you put the words together.”
-Neil Gaiman in “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”

The Alphabet

As the voice of each impending storyteller was tested with the appropriate audio equipment, they were asked to say the alphabet, slow and clear, into a microphone clipped to the collar: “A, B, C, D, E, F, G…”

All the while, the rest of the cohort sat in chairs arranged in an intimate circle around the camera. A quiet pulled us all into the middle of the small room, drawing a whirlpool of solemnity round and round. With volume-laden bookshelves lining the walls, we were pressed upon by unspoken words, while, conversely, all of the bound sheaves of paper swallowed and drew back the echoes of our silence.

As a way to dilute nervous energy, people began to fill the time between stories with more stories—mostly relaying funny and touching tales about their students. These scarlet and gold threads wove themselves into the blue and gray patches of contemplation, rejection, joy, and sorrow that were our Ugly Duckling pieces. Stories stitched into stories, everyone speaking as they were called. No one knowing if and how anything would fit together. Just weaving.

At one point, we all stopped and admired the tapestry Katie had draped across a bookshelf to use as a backdrop for filming. The rich pattern of it. All threads in abstract shapes falling on top of each other.

There were stories knit together too sacred, too long and good, to repeat in full here. But one comes to mind right now that feels especially relevant: Pam’s kindergarten student who misunderstood—or perhaps understood too well—the meaning of heaven as somewhere you can go for a weekend and come back. There was such a sweetness about this child’s innocent misperception that is difficult for my inner writer to resist. What if bliss is a mindset, an acceptance of the incomplete, rather than this whole other plane?

Follow Your Bliss

It makes me think that a creative idea is just an undefined prayer. Creativity worships trust in process and nothing else. Sometimes all we have are linear, tangible sets of symbols that we can hold onto in our minds when the way forward is still unfolding. Sometimes we just have the alphabet.

With that in mind, it makes sense that we walked the labyrinth. Which, as it happens, is a lot like having an alphabet without a prayer book. It was chaotically organized—and not just because our cohort dragging ropes across the floor and squinting at diagrams to build the labyrinth was a bit of a circus.

Ultimately, the labyrinth was also an expression of organized chaos. You can only walk forward, because the labyrinth is structured. But the structure acts as a metaphor for any and all journeys—hence the chaos. When you walk the labyrinth, there’s only one job—stick to the path you can see, and be surprised, but open, when it leads you where it does.

The seminar this weekend was called “Strategies for Independent Study Project Design.” Along with being armed with some practical information about seeking out mentors and designing a group anthology project, we were essentially given the labyrinth as our strategy. Designing an independent study project requires having an equal amount of pragmatic focus on the visible, structured path ahead, as it does having the ability to crouch piously before one’s journal reciting whatever letters and words come through.

It begs the creator to treat ideas as though they have already been rearranged into the polished cadence of a “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” before time and serendipity have strung them into a tapestry, complete with visibly interconnecting stories.

We Walk Together

It can feel a little desperate, the eternal leap of faith that is the writer’s life.

When I walked the labyrinth this weekend, the only thing that became clearer is that it can’t be done completely alone. I moved myself along the path, but had to step with and around the other people in my cohort. It was this massive clock, each person’s small, deliberate steps like the clicking of a cog. We were time, but also working outside of its boundaries. We recreated the act of faith that is moving forward with a creative project that will, by the grace of Whatever, take on an existence of its own.

If my mind becomes paralyzed with resistance along the way, at least I know I can write the alphabet in my journal or on the computer. Over and over, just to show up. It’s prayer without a prayer book. It’s not needing to know, for once, more than what we learned in Kindergarten: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.

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A Good Story Always Encodes an Archetype

The Heroine's Journey

A few years back I attended a workshop by Maureen Murdock on the Heroine’s Journey. (She has a book with the same name.) This is her take:

  • Shift from Feminine to Masculine
  • The Road of Trials
  • The Illusion of Success
  • The Descent
  • Meeting with The Goddess
  • Reconciliation with The Feminine
  • Reincorporation of the Masculine

I think a woman’s journey is very similar, but subtly different from the man’s. My analyst sent me home after my first session with a copy of Marie Louise von Franz’ The Feminine in Fairy Tales and told me to read "The Handless Maiden". Clarissa Estes also uses that folk tale to describe the woman’s psychological journey. (I’m working with the outline of this story in parsing out the meaning of the myth of Iphigenia to me.)

One difference in the Heroine’s story is that I can’t think of many (any really) “calls to action.” More often, she experiences a wounding and/or a loss. Unique among fairy tales, the motif of not having hands occurs only to heroines. She gives up her psychic grasp, her hold on the outer world to begin a time of initiation, sometimes incubation, a wandering in the woods. Both Hero and Heroine experience tests and challenges as well as a descent. Both meet mentors. I think Murdock may be correct that the Heroine meets hers more often in the underworld. Her quest seems more about gaining knowledge of the deep feminine.

Creating Sanctuary

So, let me tell you the story of my two sanctuary experiences, formed decades apart -- one in my first half of life, the other in my second.

WEC: The Women Executives Committee

In the 1970’s/80’s women building careers in corporations often found themselves “silo-ed” as they attained middle management and, rarely, senior level positions. They were often the only woman at that level in their corporate division or department, even entire company. Few women preceded them as role models. Norms for how professional women should behave or look were undeveloped (and often got wacky – remember floppy bows?).

In 1980 senior male executives got particularly gun shy about mentoring younger women after the scandalizing Bendix affair, a business soap opera featuring the CEO and the very attractive 29-year old newly-minted Harvard MBA he hired as executive assistant.

The silo was lonely. Then during the late 1970’s, a woman hired into the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce for an unrelated agenda called together a meeting of the women in the silos. Ann asked if we would be willing to join a committee to work toward what needed to be done to help mentor women and address obstacles to their career advancement.

We named ourselves the Women Executives Committee (even though most of us weren’t executives yet). We held an annual conference. We mentored women on welfare who wanted to start their own businesses. We did “good deeds.” (Isn’t that what women are supposed to do?) Most importantly we taught ourselves. What skills did we need to learn? One of us would figure out a way to teach that. We went off on an annual weekend retreat (usually at a spa) where Andrea, who owned a PR business, bartered chits to entice two or three people to come and teach us three more things.

Our mentor and godmother, Eileen Kraus, gave us advice, counsel and cover at the Chamber. They never did quite figure out what we were up to until Eileen became Chair and then it didn’t matter. Over time that annual retreat group became enduring friends sharing personal and professional joys and pain, accomplishments and defeats. Stories. We are now going on 40 years, still gathering together three or so times a year to tell our stories. We still call ourselves WEC.

Temenos

In my second half of life, I joined a seminar that meets weekly to study the works of C.J. Jung. For two years I doubt I spoke a total four paragraphs aloud there. The participants were exceptionally learned (including one of the three translators working on The Red Book). What the heck did I understand? Who was I to contribute?

The seminar had just taken up reading the two volumes of Visions: Notes of the Seminar given in 1930-1934. Jung in his seminar was working with a series of visions recorded and painted by a young American woman in analysis with him. It is an extraordinary account of a feminine self, experiencing the unconscious through active imagination. As Jung dialogues with the members of his seminar about Christiana Morgan’s visions, he articulates his developing theories. But throughout it, the struggle between his ideas about the feminine principle and Christiana’s dramatic and different experience of it is illuminated and exposed.

My inner work began and developed alongside the seminar. As we reached the end of five years and 661 pages (we proceed at glacial speed), I had enough theory in my head to start testing it against my heart and own experience. I got cranky. Some women in the seminar I had come to admire joined me in muttering at the edges of coffee break. We agreed to meet one Saturday morning and talk about what it was that Jung was “saying” about the Feminine that didn’t resonate at all with us. However, we didn’t want to upset the Learned Ones (whom we also love) and agreed that what we say within our circle stays protected there.

We call our gathering Temenos. Within it we share our dreams and our stories.

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