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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, 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.”


“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.”

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.
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“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:


All images in post are courtesy of Ester Honig

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



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 »

All the Reasons to Eat Good Food

tumblr_n5mh5y3l1V1qkuo26o1_5007.3 million Americans in 2008 were vegetarian. That number is likely to have doubled by 2014 and, really, it is no wonder people are turning off meat when chefs like Jaimie Oliver reveal how hamburgers are made at McDonalds and when documentaries like Fed-Up and Food, inc make you never want to look at a food again unless it is a safe, leafy green thing.

The rise of vegetarianism and veganism can be partly attributed to the horror stories we hear about factory farms, overcrowded animals in concrete boxes with no sun and inhumane raising and butchering practices. But it may be too simple to suggest that the growing moral sensibility regarding food origins come from a nation-wide newfound enlightenment about how ingredients are processed.

We could say that people are more conscious now of the provenance of food for the sake of their health, for the sake of quality, and for the sake of taste and all of those reasons are legitimate impulses for changing the way we eat. But what if the organic, all-natural, local food movement began in some other place? Such as a deep, cultural fear of the world at large.

Not to sound too dramatic, but the rise of vegetarianism and veganism could also be seen as a reaction to a general lack of feeling in control. All us regular people take in bad news everyday. The media reports stories of how the economy is a mess, the environment is on the brink of disaster and the political stage looks more like a darkly funny circus act every year.

Therefore, the average person, feeling paralyzed by the messiness of global living, turns instead to something they think they can control. Their food.

When you think about it that way, the popularity of various form of meat-free diets start to make more sense. As a single human being, I cannot fix the global climate change problem or stop the ice-caps from melting, but I can buy cage-free eggs and not eat meat from farm that mistreat their animals, I can not eat meat at all, and by doing so it makes the over-crowded factory-farms less valuable. At least that’s what I hope for.

Maybe our food choices are driven by fear, maybe by a moral sensibility, maybe by a passion for good food. Whatever the reason, does it make a difference in the long run? Maybe, maybe not. But I like to think so. I like to think of food as being a good start. And since we all have to eat anyway, why not eat all-natural, organic, cage-free, hormone-free, vegan, raw, non-homogenized, rBST-free, local, non-processed food? Even if it does sound like a lot of work.

Just Stop Trying, and Other Impossible Acts of Surrender

Relax, nothing is under control.

I’m trying!

“Just stop trying, and it’ll happen,” all varieties of people tell me when I say I’m still not pregnant. But I don’t know what that looks like. Stop charting my temperature? Stop taking supplements? Stop going to the doctor? Stop thinking about the trajectory of my life? How does one enter such a state of zen?

At some point I stopped trying to be beautiful or brilliant and settled on being kind and honest…at least mostly. My hair’s sprouting up wires of silver that I refuse to pluck or dye. My skin’s clean of makeup, because what difference could it really make in a life — lips brightened, eyes framed by shadow, rouge a trick on the cheeks — that couldn’t also be made bare? And when I draw a blank to an answer, I just say it: “I don’t know,” and hope the recipient appreciates candor over breadth of knowledge. In these small ways I’ve given up and feel good in the giving.

I’ve also given up trying out of pure inability to make something happen. Writing, for instance. I’ve stopped trying to get published. I’ve stopped trying to write something great. Instead, I let things happen. A contest or publication deadline lands in my inbox or on Facebook on a day when I have space for it, and I enter it. I try. By doing that over the past four years, I’ve had five poems published in three journals. Not bad for not trying, eh? The memoir I’ve been trying to write for years eludes me until I give up, and then, out of nowhere, while watching Q with Jian Ghomeshi (live no less) in Portland at the Aladdin I have an epiphany about a big question I’ve had — how to write myself as a character — and I jot it down. By not trying, I’ve invited the answer in, perhaps.

Read more »

Back in Orange

Photo credit: Jill Greenberg for Netflix

Photo credit: Jill Greenberg for Netflix


Over the weekend, I finally finished the first season of “Orange is the New Black,” and my timing couldn’t be better: The second season will be released on Netflix this Friday.

Netflix hasn’t released figures on just how many people have seen the show thus far, but it is their most watched-original series ever. So I’m clearly not the only one, even if I am a bit late to the game (I’m also still on the second season of Mad Men, so timeliness is not my strong suit regarding pop culture).

The show grabs you with the “rich yuppie goes to prison after ex-girlfriend betrays her” premise, but luckily, there’s much more to it than that hook (there are also, it should be noted, significant differences between the TV show and the Piper Kerman memoir on which the show is loosely based).

The show wouldn’t work if the writers didn’t work to flesh out the characters beyond their initial archetypes. There are crazy-eyed lesbians and drug addicts, but they aren’t just that. Then there’s the purported protagonist. Piper possesses a startling lack of self-awareness upon entering the prison walls, not realizing how her initial judgments of her fellow inmates will come back to haunt her, and even when she does realize how she’s screwed up, she has trouble righting things. There are many moments throughout the season when she’s the least sympathetic character on the show.

Any show set in prison is going to be seen as subversive, but OINTB isn’t content to sit back and go “Look! Prison lesbians!” It doesn’t exist just for shock value, although it isn’t afraid of it. One of the most subversive things the show does is dare to view its characters as actual people without launching into a lecture on the evils of the prison industrial complex. This is not one of those after-school specials. This isn’t even “Scared Straight,” which the show skewers nicely in one episode.

Instead, this is a show that’s extremely confident in its writers, actors and even audience. There’s plenty of ground between being a saint and being a sinner, even for prison inmates, and that’s just one reason me and so many others have dates with our laptops this weekend.


In 2006 Dodge released its replacement of the Neon, a compact car, with the Caliber, a five-door Sedan with a hatchback. It wasn’t until a year later, after graduating from college when looking for my first used car I noticed the vehicle that would become my closest friend. It was happenstance that I was working at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, where the latest cars come first as a kind of test market for potential buyers. In my short time with the company, I saw the Nissan Maxima switch body styles, and the reluctant respect given to the newer Kia models like the Optima. Customers were quick to show their approval of a car by asking for one more day on the rental, or leaning over the return counter and waxing on about “pressing the metal to the floor.” They were even quicker to dislike a car – I’d picked up more than one set of keys that’d been thrown to the ground at my feet.


I knew more about automobiles than I ever would’ve without the job and yet, when it came time to make my purchase, despite my technical knowledge of things like gas mileage, safety ratings, and even future repair costs, I made a choice that was purely emotional. It was the cup holders – they light up at night, green orbs floating in the center of the car. And it was the gear stick, which instead of being down by the cup holders, was up high — even today, my right hand will gravitate to the silver knob immediately after merging on to a highway. It was the hatchback trunk with windows on all sides, so nothing was hidden; it was all there to be seen. I found out later that the Dodge Caliber had been marketed to young men in their twenties and extra features of that theme included things like chrome accessories, speakers that came down from the open hatchback door, and huge rims. Read more »

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