February 20, 2018

The Power of Telling Our Stories

Bill discusses his book and the power of stories at a reading in Raleigh, NC.

Bill discusses his book and the power of stories at a reading in Raleigh, NC.
Photo by Georgia Springer

Mary Karr, in her book The Art of Memoir, says, “In a great memoir, some aspect of the writer’s struggle for self often serves as the book’s organizing principle, and the narrator’s battle to become whole rages over the book’s trajectory.”

In writing my memoir, The Crane Dance, I did struggle to understand my core identity. As the drafts unfolded and finally formed a coherent arc, my narrator’s battle did in fact help me “to become whole.”

The writer and memoirist Joan Didion says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of narrative line upon disparate images.”

In The Crane Dance, disparate images bounced about from India to Boston, then to North Carolina, back to Mississippi, to Atlanta and Mendocino, Cairo to Stonehenge, the beach to the mountains, then finally back to Jabalpur, with home in Raleigh the center of this crazy journey. What drew the line straight and true, finally, was the journey of the heart, determined to find the right compass coordinates for the larger story.

Robert Coles, the child psychiatrist and author, says stories are the shortest distance between two people. In his book, The Call of Stories, he describes how as a psychiatry resident, he moved from asking about symptoms alone to asking patients to tell him a story or two, “an old-fashioned story,” he asked from one memorable patient.

The word “story” seems to be everywhere these days – “Storytime” for young children at the library, the wonderful “StoryCorps” project with its mission “to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.”

We talk about stories in our songs and art, in our memories from grandparents and scrapbooks, in sermons and education. Stories need to be told and be heard. Stories add some understanding to our place on earth. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” says Maya Angelou.

“A memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them,” says Karr. “From the second you choose one event over another, you’re shaping the past’s meaning.” In her book, she sought impact on an audience beyond writers, hoping “to prompt some reflection about the reader’s own divided selves and ever-morphing past.”

“Captivating stories kept me reading forward,” a friend told me recently, as we discussed her experience reading my book. “This is a white man’s story yet powerfully resonated with my own life experiences as a woman of color. Of being in a dark place, frustration and anger, culture shocks, unresolved life issues, transition, powerlessness, sorrow, constant nagging of inadequacy, jealousy, struggles of which me is the real me. Your book transcended race and other demographic differences.”

The Crane Dance focuses on my mid-life years when I re-experienced chronic low-grade depression. Flashbacks to my childhood in Mississippi and stresses my parents experienced informed my transformation, as I drew on the men’s movement, expressive arts, ritual, and meditation, as well as therapy and antidepressants. Imposing a narrative line, slowly and inevitably, did give shape to my ever-morphing past.

I love the way the writer Dan Wakefield describes the approach to his workshops on writing your spiritual autobiography. “The past can actually change. By remembering and writing down our past from a spiritual perspective (that is, taking into account its meaning in the context of our life’s journey) and then reading it aloud to others engaged in the same process, we can sometimes see and understand it in a way that makes it different. Since our past experience only exists now in our mind – it only ‘lives’ in our recreation of it — our changed experience of it becomes the reality, and in that sense, we really do have the power to change our own past.”

A thread of stories in the middle section of my book connect my changing spirit with memories stored in my body. I stumbled upon teachers who knew how to connect movement and words, working with shapes and stories to create art and ritual. In one class, as a middle-aged man moving about a beautiful community arts center not far from my home, I lost myself in time, returning 30 years to the teenage heart, raw and unknowing.

I am clogging before an old man in overalls, calling the community square dance in the mountains of North Carolina, where I went most Saturday nights in those days. This wise face looks back at me and offers a blessing. “You’re doing fine young man. This is the right place for you. Just keep on dancing,” his eyes say, as if delivering a father’s blessing.

I needed such blessings more often from my own father during my teenage years. We really to have the power to change our own past. I carry those years in me now in a changed way, in my present understanding of my life and times.

A few men who have read my book mentioned feeling embarrassed with me, now knowing so much about my inner life. “No need for that,” I said, reassuring them I hope. “Actually, I feel the opposite of embarrassment. I feel free, a burden released.” I wonder about this embarrassment. Perhaps my book prompted a feeling of embarrassment for men in general, for what lurks beneath us, for the work needed for the culture to become whole.

Each day, new thresholds appear, holding incongruent segments, crossroads, decision points. How we live through the days and decades provides material for stories, new images to incorporate into a narrative line. As we forge our individual randomness into broader storylines, we place ourselves in a greater arc – of history, of meaning, of humankind. We step back from our individual pain, beyond our passing moments in time, and craft our larger tale, settling into the mystery of being.

In the novel One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni, nine people are trapped in the basement of the Indian embassy in San Francisco after an earthquake. As they begin to lose hope, start arguing and fighting, one of those trapped has a thought, with a burst of excitement as she senses the power of her idea. “We can each tell an important story from our lives,” she says. The others start objecting – they don’t have a good story, they don’t know the others well enough, they’re too shy.

“Everyone has a story,” she says. “I don’t believe anyone can go through life without encountering at least one amazing thing.” Trapped together are ordinary people – no fame, no extraordinary achievement, still, lives that have crossed many daily thresholds. Now, heading perhaps toward their last breath, these strangers, one after another, tell an amazing story about their lives, each after the other.

Last summer, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, walking leisurely among the masters – Monet, Degas, and others – I paused for a long drink of wisdom before “A Waitress at Duval’s Restaurant.” Beneath the simple scene from 1875 were these words of Renoir: “I like painting best when it looks eternal without boasting about it: an everyday eternity revealed on a street corner, a servant girl pausing a moment as she scours a saucepan and becoming a Juno on Olympus.” Juno was the queen of the Roman gods.

I have led both an ordinary and an extraordinary life, and so has each of us. In The Crane Dance, I focused on my midlife years through the prism of stories. Flashbacks to my childhood fleshed out pieces of the narrative, as did trips to India as a 22-year old Peace Corp volunteer and at age 56, returning to see my India family. The men’s conference in Mendocino, the trip with my son to Atlanta, and on and on, the stories unfolded.

Like Mary Karr, I hope my book prompts reflections about divided selves and ever-morphing pasts. The common ground for the reader lies beyond the details of Mississippi or a men’s conference, or my particular mother or father, or how I came to terms with the role that depression played in my life. What I hope can touch all readers is the power to re-imagine our own stories. To step back from the details and into the arc that sweeps across time and space, and see ourselves as Renoir saw that servant girl, an ordinary person as a Juno on Olympus.

As my friend said, “Thank you for telling your stories to inspire us to step into the wilderness to find who we are.”

I started my first memoir late in middle age, refining and finally publishing as I passed into another threshold of life. Now, about to turn 70, new ideas are taking shape, perhaps another memoir of sorts as I sort through and update stories I’ve written over the years, some published, some not. I’m not sure where the project is headed. But I have noticed the words of the Celtic priest and poet John O’Donohue: “Aging becomes a time for visiting the temple of your memory and integrating your life. Integration is a vital part of coming home to yourself.”

All of us don’t need to write a memoir, but all of us benefit from finding a way to become whole, especially by engaging our own stories. We need a way to come to terms with unresolved issues, to reconcile with the rough edges of our ourselves and our past, to love our life in all its imperfections. While old age tests us all, it holds a promise as well, as O’Donohue reminds us: “Old age can be a wonderful time to develop the art of inner harvesting.”

Our time on earth holds the ordinary and extraordinary hand in hand. In “Time Recycled,” the poet Bennett Myers gets at this mystery that ties us all to Juno:

Brown baggy oak leaves
Cling to their parent branches.
The November winds
Have not blown them away.

Suspended in time
Are they to drop of their will
Or be pushed by new buds?

Time is like that
Just waiting to be dropped away.
And where does used time go
To some far away black hole.
It’ll be laundered
Hung out to dry.

Look up on a sunny day
Against a blue sky
White billowy clouds
Your Time recycled.