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Storytelling as Community, as Healing

After Asa’s great post about how storytelling affects our decision making, I started thinking about how storytelling could play a role in the careers of people who aren’t writers. I found this great video from storytelling.org, the website for the Center for Digital Storytelling, about forensic nurses and digital storytelling. The mission of the Center for Digital Storytelling is “to promote the value of story as a means for compassionate community action.”

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I know many of the contributors to this blog have taught, or currently teach, creative writing. My question for those with this type of experience is: In what ways has being a promoter of storytelling brought about change in your life or the life of someone else?

Stories Sway Our Decisions

Last month, I attended a writers conference where Lisa Cron presented a master workshop on how neuroscience discoveries can help your story telling (and your writing). I had to leave early for an appointment, but Ms. Cron’s ideas about the importance of story telling and how stories influence our everyday decisions stuck with me.

So, I looked her up when I got home and found a TEDx talk by her. The video is a little more than 17 minutes long, but worth watching just for the share pleasure of discovering that stories–and therefore writers (hyberbole added by me)–are more important than we think.

In Ms. Cron’s words:

“We turn to stories not to escape reality; we turn to stories to navigate reality.”

and

“If you can’t feel emotion, you can’t make a single rational decision.”

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“The Power of story is yours, use it wisely.”

Stage Fright

School is about to start, which means I am fiddling with my syllabi. One class is brand new, and I believe that I could mess with a new syllabus for all of eternity, tweaking phrases, adding and erasing assignments, rearranging scheduled activities. This perpetual revising tick will continue until the class begins, which is probably why I have the following anxiety dream:

 It is the first day of the class and once I walk into the classroom, I realize that I have forgotten to bring the name cards that I make for my students each semester. Not only do I not have their name cards, but I don’t have the class list. Also, danggit, I have forgotten to bring copies of the syllabus. I think that I can bring it up on the projector, but of course, the computer is not working. I struggle to remember anything from the syllabus and cannot. I determine that I can assign a get-to-know-you freewrite while I run to print out copies, which is when I realize that actually, I never made a syllabus. It is the first day and I am unprepared.

My first days of classes have mostly been smooth. The typical hiccup is the AV equipment either malfunctioning or not working at all. Other people are not so lucky. Last year, a worried freshman approached my office, saying, “My professor has not shown up. We don’t know what to do.” The professor in question was not the kind of person to miss the first day unless barred by a major accident. I tried to call the professor, but her phone was off. I met with the students, collected their information, explained that this kind of thing was very rare, and the professor would contact them as soon as possible. It soon came to light that the class had been cancelled, and while the professor had been notified of the change, the students had not.

Another colleague, long since retired, once walked into a class, introduced himself, passed out the syllabus, and discussed at length the course’s objectives and philosophical context before realizing that he was in the wrong classroom.

Due to flooding, this semester, I have lost one, maybe two, of the classrooms I was scheduled to use. Classes do not begin for another week, so I remain hopeful that a new classroom or a tent will be located and reserved, that everyone will be notified, and, if I dare to dream, there will be AV equipment.

None of these examples of first day “oops” compare, of course, to the recent headline on Gawker, “Oklahoma Teacher Shows Up Drunk and Pantsless to Her First Day of Work.” At least it was not the first day of class and no students were subjected to her disorientation, frailty, and alcoholism. It could not have been worse for this woman if it were a dream.

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What about your bad first days? Does your department have a legendary worst first class? Do you still get nervous and do your dreams reflect it?

 

Begin Again, A Summer Retrospective

Sometimes a good story is all it takes to make sense of your life.

Sometimes a good story is all it takes to make sense of your life.

You go to see Begin Again at the cheap theater near your house with your husband to celebrate your second wedding anniversary. This after a six-day visit from your mother — who you’ve been emotionally preparing for since her last visit twelve months ago — and your fourteen-year-old niece who you haven’t seen since she was nine.

The whole trip becomes an act of juggling dull knives, a negotiation between reality and expectation. You pick your mom and niece up from the airport, breath measured, smile painted on. You see yourself in your family’s eyes, you see your faults. And you’re determined not to break or dive too far under the surface of their lives.

But then night falls and you find yourself tucking in your teenage niece at your house, listening to her wondering about your life, sharing hers, and you feel the immensity of her questions, her stories full of implication, clues as to who she’ll be in another year and another and you’re overwhelmed by the weight of it all, these lives crashing into yours.

You’ve always wanted to be a fixer but never knew which tools would do the job.

A week or so before your family arrives, you walk to the park for a picnic with friends. The scene is all urban bucolic: lawn for yards, climbable trees, a tennis court adjacent to the community garden. And then the vagrant guy walks up, kneels down, holds out a blue paper plate, asks for exactly two deviled eggs in a whisper. He has his delivery down to a science. He’s patient, Christlike. You think of that old admonition about treating the ragged and poor and deserted as if they’re Christ returned; you consider letting him in, giving him what you have to give. But before you consider this you grimace and scold him. Please don’t, you say. Your friend chimes in, This is a private party. As if your blankets are locked doors and he’s the wolf threatening to blow down your house.

You leave feeling a little sick at how easy it is to keep a hungry man hungry with piles of food at your disposal. You leave wondering who you really are.

Then you’re sitting by a pool with your mother, telling her all the reasons she’s wrong. About what, you don’t know exactly, but you know these words have to be said even though you see what’s happening in her eyes and you know, too, that you’ve chosen the wrong tools again. What if the right tools don’t exist in your reality, you wonder. What if some lives just stay broken?

Then you’re sitting, arm woven through the arm of your love, in a dark theater watching Mark Ruffalo spiral out and back into control of his life, watching him find the tools, be the fixer. You watch people lose each other and find themselves. You watch a girl fall in love with her father and understand what it means to be beautiful and wanted. You watch Keira Knightley make music artfully and choose not to sell out. You watch lives move like a dance and embrace in understanding. You tell your husband how glad you are that Mark and Keira don’t hook up, that it would ruin their romance. You’re in love with their kind of love: a tight rope, a life raft.

And you know that you’re not exactly sinking or flying and you know that you’re full of something that can be good when it’s not tired or frightened and you tell yourself to keep trying, that someday the tool might be there, just the one you’ve been looking for all these years.

Enchanted Watermelon Seeking Art Submissions

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Enchanted Watermelon is seeking art submissions for a Loteria-themed coloring book.

A portion of the proceeds from each coloring book will benefit an Albuquerque nonprofit organization that help children in situations of domestic violence, poverty, or homelessness.

The coloring book will not only showcase artists’ work, but since children are the target market for the book, it provides a unique, plausible way for children to help children.

A series of community artist workshops will be scheduled once the coloring book is in production.

How to Submit:

1. Select an image from the list of cards and interpret it with your own style and imagination. Your image will be printed in black and white, so please consider high contrast drawing materials/media.

2. Develop a fun rhyme or verse to accompany your image. *The rhyme does not have to be in Spanish.* Here are some examples from the original deck:

EL DIABLITO (The Little Devil): “Pórtate bien cuatito, si no te lleva el coloradito.”   “Be good, or you will meet the little red guy.”

LA PERA (The Pear) “El que espera, desespera.”  “He who waits, despairs.”

3. Please use our Loteria template to ensure that your ratio is accurate and that you have enough space for the title of your image and a whimsical rhyme or verse!

4. To submit, visit: https://enchantedwatermelon.submittable.com/submit

I don’t know if you’ve seen my home in the news recently, but there currently extremely high rates of homelessness and violence in Albuquerque. Most recently, two homeless men were killed by three teenage boys. This kind of violence breeds more violence. One of the boys had been homeless himself only a couple years before.

This coloring book will provide a fun, lighthearted way to raise funds for shelters that take in children, and help give them extra resources to continue the powerful, difficult work they do.

Writing Horoscopes

Cancer (June 22 – July 22)
Set aside some time this week to watch people at the park, the café, or the doctor’s office waiting room. Go wherever your current tale is set. Pay attention to the movements, appearances, and conversations that make these people real. “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature,” Cancer Ernest Hemingway reminds us.

Leo (July 23 – August 22)
Leo, your comedic timing will be spot on this week. Make sure that every pun leaving your fingertips is working in service of its larger meaning this week. As lioness Dorothy Parker said, “Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)
Virgo Roald Dahl once said, “A writer of fiction lives in fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.” Don’t let that fear stall you this week, Virgo. Instead of opening your Word document and experiencing stage fright, tackle that electric white page like a gardener would as he tilled his spring beds. Seize the opportunity to plant, grow, weed, and nurture your ideas.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)
“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil,” admitted fellow Libra Truman Capote. He was speaking of revision. Libra, this week the scales have tipped in favor of cutting, adding, and rewording rather than creating new material. Work through your past drafts dramatically on the first pass and judiciously on the second.
Read more »

“Make Me Beautiful”

Journalist Esther Honig wanted to examine how the standards of beauty vary across cultures. She sent a picture of herself—makeup free and hair pulled back– to 40 different graphic designers across the globe with only one request: “Make me beautiful.”

What she received back blew her mind.  (And mine.)

Some of the pictures came back with minimal changes, what I  think of as studio photo retouching. Like this image from Romania:

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All images in post are courtesy of Ester Honig

Others were radically altered. This one is from the Philippines:

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What struck me is that some designers changed Honig’s features in ways I wouldn’t even think of, going to extremes like changing her eye color, removing collar bones, and altering the shape of her eyes and forehead.  Read more »

Evidence of Life: Voices from the PSU Archives

Portland State University just discovered new life through history

Portland State University just discovered new life through history

 

Last week Portland State University made headlines after revealing decades of speeches that had been tucked away in their library’s archives, out of sight, out of mind, until now. Some of the greatest minds of our time — leaders, artists, activists — can be heard speaking at PSU online now. Check out Robert F. Kennedy, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, and a ton of other voices here.

Optimism in the Cycle of Failure

I’m not sure when I realized that I’m a fairly optimistic person. I know I began to identify optimism as an integral part of my outlook on life when it became clear that I was going to be laid off last fall. And when the lay off happened, I had grief but never really lost optimism and confidence.

During that period I was looking for quotes—inspirational, humorous, self-affirming—when I found this one from Helen Keller:

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope and confidence.

But there are moments when optimism feels like delusion. Moments when I ask, where does this faith in self come from? 

When faced with failure, there is that briefest second when the idea to give up sparks. But then my confidence snuffs it out so unequivocally. Doubt presses in to blow some air to revive the ember; it says, you failed and there is no certainty you will ever succeed. But Optimism, Hope and Confidence punch Doubt squarely in the mouth, so it crumples to the ground. They each take a turn at grinding the already dead spark into the dirt with their heavy boots and then kick Doubt in the stomach a few times, for good measure.

Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots

Yes. I just characterized Optimism, Hope and Confidence as a gang of bullies. Here’s why.

I appreciate the power they evoke, the ability to persevere. But I think there is value in all emotion, even that moment of defeat. I don’t necessarily want to wallow in defeat. But my gut is telling me that it is important to let it happen, that there is value in not shutting it down quickly and completely.

And then Doubt comes back in bruised and playing Devil’s advocate; it says, if you wallow, you could get stuck; better to keep moving forward; don’t look back. Doubt is consistent in its ability to play any and all sides of the field.

So, what’s my point? Read more »

Obesssions

I was that kid who could spend hours focused on one particular thing and it would usually take over my life. As an adult, I’ve learned to multitask, but sometimes I’m still caught up in something and consumed with one particular thing. It can be a new author and I have to read all books he or she has written. Or just a particular series and I read all books written in one sitting and then wait impatiently for the new one to come out. I love Netflix because the best way to watch any show–House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, for example–is to binge watch.

And then there is the internet. YouTube sucks me in like nothing else and I’m addicted to Kid President, Tiffany Persson (A weird video blog based on a Swedish comedy character), and any cute thing dogs do.  My most recent obsession is watching Bored Shorts TV’s Kid Snippets.

These are videos imagined by kids, but acted out by grownups. For some reason it tickles my funny bone so much that I can’t stop watching them. I’ve watched my favorites over and over again. Here are some of them.

The one with the penguin:

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Read more »

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