Friday, August 07, 2015

Personal stories: why there is a place for them and why I don't!

A few days ago I was asked to tell a personal story, one about moving here to the states. I did. Move to the States, but also tell the story! It was not really a story, but a few recollections put together in the moment with a few people – all adults. Never thought about it before, just did it. Most likely sounded like it too! But I added some humor, and might work on it a little!

Then today I was asked by a person who attended one of my workshops more about personal stories. I don’t normally tell them. I have seen some awful personal storytellers and I have seen brilliant personal storytellers. I first heard Meg Gilman who set the bar pretty bloody high, so others need to be very much on, A-Game. I used to go to a lot of poetry slams when I lived in Portland, Oregon, and having to sit through the psychotherapy poems which should only have been heard by a therapist to get to the good and great works got too much for me. I feel the same with the Moth. All the stories are brilliantly told, but some of the stories are not anything I feel the teller would want to share with the whole Western world!

These exposures of intimate, personal life, be it in poems or story have left a shadow over me about doing my own personal stories. Why bother, I think, when the older, folk and faerie tales, the myths and legends are so much better – or at the very, very least have been told for thousands of years for a reason – they are so good they won’t go away! How many personal stories or poetry slams are like that? How many will be told in some form 50 years from now? How many BOOKS will be in print still then? Get my point? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against really good personal storytellers and their work, I love what they do, and enjoy it. I just choose not to do it myself, except in my teaching role or in very rare moments like yesterday.

As with poetry, there is I believe, a real issue with personal stories. Some personal stories when told, feel really good for the teller/performer. They think they are sharing a powerful story (true on many counts) but these same powerful stories leave the listener extremely uncomfortable. At those times the lesson (if there is one) and story is lost because people want to forget about what they heard, they cannot take on the weight or emotion of that story. It was too personal for them and not crafted in a way that gave the power, or message, and instead only rawness.

Photo by Simon Brooks

I recently led a workshop for adults, and it was interesting that the men mostly chose to tell personal stories which were filled with action, and stories that had humor. The women of the group told very personal tales rich with emotion and feeling. One of these emotional stories was on the right side of the edge of raw. It was just balanced enough to work, thank goodness, and was told in such a way and with great compassion, the story came out filled with meaning. It was a story of the loss of a child. It could have been too much, too raw. This participant was struggling with which story to tell. The one we worked on was great, but also quite raw, and we talked about the motivation of such a story - what is the REASON for sharing the tale/experience. The other story, the one eventually told, was not one she and I worked on. Both memoirs were very powerful. There is a fine and delicate line, I believe. The teller needs to know WHY they are telling it and needs to look very carefully and deeply at the answer. It is too easy for a very personal story becoming something like a therapy session for the teller, and an agony and embarrassment for the listener! The teller wants to create empathy with the listeners and not make the audience so uncomfortable they want to forget what they heard, or leave. (Also see my blog on telling the wrong story to wrong audience.) There is art in this craft, and both the women tellers nailed it at the performance.

It takes deep searching when stories are raw and keen-edged, if you will. If the are considered being told one needs to make sure the tale can be presented with a purpose of teaching or positive sharing and not as self-indulgent therapy. There is much to be learned from each others stories. By sharing our personal stories we find empathy and understanding with each other.

Photo by Simon Brooks
As an immigrant myself, getting kids in schools where there is a high population of immigrants to share their experiences gives the students a chance to let people know why they came to the States, or what horrors, or such poor living standards they left behind. Kids who are bullied can tell stories to let others know how it makes them feel in a way their peers can understand. Racism, sexism, all those negative ‘isms’ are bullying. We need more empathy.  In this age where real personal connection is so greatly lacking, it is easy to tell too much too soon, putting all of yourself out there. This is not always a good thing, as I have found out in the past. Information can be power in the wrong hands!

As a race of silly old human beings we need to know we are all the same ("If you prick us, do we not bleed?/if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison/us, do we not die?"-William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1) – now more than ever. We are people with our own pain and hurts, our own griefs and grieving, our own foibles and fancies, and we need to know we are not alone in all this; our stories are different yet connect us to each other and the world we live in. We need to do it artfully and thoughtfully, and, as with most things, we also need to listen with compassion.


1 comment:

Andy in Germany said...

Thanks for this: it helped me to undestand my audience better on one occasion when I did tell a personal story and got a blank response. I was asked to tell the story of having to call an ambulance for my six-month-old baby who had breathing difficulties because of pollution. It is a rew story, and I had to tell it in German, which is my second language.
I felt a lack of sympathy, but I can see what you mean: it was at least partly because of being too raw to respond to for a group of middle aged, middle class Germans.
Since then I haven't told stories in German again, or personal stories for that metter.