Let’s Get Personal: Tools of the Trade

By Meg Gilman, Sharing the Fire 2016 Intensive Workshop Presenter

Gilman - Meg

Following a free-form trail through the senses I am organizing and cleaning my mother’s house. She is 101 years old and has lived in the same house for almost 75 years; yes, there is a lot of ‘stuff!’ In a tattered cardboard shoebox, I find a square b&w photo with the crinkled edges of a print taken by a Brownie camera. In the photo, my father, with whom I had a rather tumultuous relationship, stands on our narrow lop-sided porch, his open coat flapping, his cap at a crooked angle, a broom in his hands being ‘played’ like a guitar. I can hear him fake strumming and singing, “She’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes … .” That was a good moment, despite the fact that everything looked crooked. We were a crooked family in a crooked house.

The photos in this box smell musty, perhaps it is the scent of all the years between then and now still holding the secrets, the memories, the unspent emotions.

In the same cupboard, there are bags of saved birthday and Christmas cards signed by people I do not remember, crispy newspaper clippings that crumble at the edges as I unfold them, tiny boxes of gummed white circles made to reinforce three-ring binder paper holes. I test a circle on my tongue; the taste is almost acrid. I wonder at the simple circular tool made to hold things together.

I pull forward these images and smells and tastes; they connect in a crazy-quilt pattern, leaving a thread for me to follow, to discover what lies beneath, to make leaps to other images, and to find a shape that will perhaps have story legs.

If I let myself continue, I might find that the tapping of my father’s shoe as he sings is suddenly repeated in the sound of his tapping a spoon against his coffee cup, stirring and stirring in so many spoonfuls of sugar – a sound that irritated me even as a young child, that stirring and stirring, the continual clink of spoon against china, meant to annoy, and his waiting for someone to tell him to stop so they could be slapped. That sound, the thwack, stops me short … did that really happen? The word ‘justice’ appears like a lighted game show sign – something is wanting me to examine what justice means to me, and why I have become so vehemently attached to fairness. Hmm … it’s not only because my sun sign is Libra! And there it is, the sun. I feel the warmth … there is warmth in this somewhere. I am lying in a wheelbarrow; I am maybe 8 or 9 years old. The sun is warm on my skin; I am lazily watching the clouds stream across the sky, a sky so blue I feel surrounded by it, floating. In that moment there is peace, but I have a feeling that even in this stillness, something is going to happen. …..

(This free-form trail through the senses is the result of following just one of the many exercises we’ll explore in the Sensing Personal Stories intensive at Sharing the Fire. Maybe there are nuggets here I can use later in a story.)

Why tell personal stories?

There is an ongoing discussion, debate if you will, about telling personal stories vs traditional/folktales. I tell both personal stories and traditional tales, probably more traditional if I were to count. It’s my opinion that all stories bear a personal element – we tell the traditional tales we are most attracted to, whether we are conscious of our reasons or not. The problem seems to be that while traditional tales have existed for years because they speak to a deeper consciousness, personal stories often do not have that advantage, whether because some stories do not stretch beyond the anecdotal stage or because the teller has not fully understood the potential for, and then developed the universal aspects of, the story; the reasons for that are many – lack of awareness, time constraints, laziness even, etc.

A question I would ask anyone developing a personal story – why should I care? Beyond the moment of entertainment, what is going to connect you to me; what thread can I follow from your existence to mine, and then to those who came before and to those who will follow? Just because a story is defined as ‘personal’ is not a justification for it to try to stand on wobbly legs. Bringing to personal stories everything we know and love about traditional tales gives the personal stories we develop the ability to touch the pulse of that elusive universal connection.

There are many entries to finding and expanding personal stories. I work with the energy of the story, often diving into the depths and building upward, but seldom is there a linear path in the development process. I find it is helpful to have many points of access; our minds have clever ways to build barriers, especially if the material is emotional for us, or if it presents a sudden, unexpected turn; knowing how to make detours (read ‘having a wide range of story tools’) can take us to previously uncharted territory in our psyche and memory.

Build a set of exercises that work for you as an individual as well as for a story as it reveals itself. Use more than one tool or method in your process; that helps you to look at the story from many angles and from more than one point of view. Allow, don’t get ahead of what the deeper story might be trying to tell you, don’t short circuit the process. Shelve the story if you have to, until the time is right. I have stories and story ideas, both traditional and personal, that have been shelved, because they, or I, are just not ready. There’s nothing worse than a personal story being told from the stage before it’s time. (Note I said, “from the stage;” this is not about therapeutic storytelling.)

One tool that we will explore in depth in the STF workshop is the use of the senses. We are often advised to use the senses in storytelling; yes, the senses can add immediacy and presence to a story, but I would also add *if* they are used genuinely and not gratuitously. We’ll talk briefly about that in the workshop at Sharing the Fire. The senses can be an inroad to developing new story material as well; we will spend a good amount of time together doing just that. Do you have a ‘dominant’ sense? Can you tell a ‘personal story’ using metaphor? Can you work within ‘magical thinking?’ Are you a still person who needs to write or do you like to move and talk? What does all this have to do with the senses? Well, we’ll find out in the Sensing Personal Stories intensive on Friday afternoon!

Want to take this fascinating journey with Meg GIlman? Register for her pre-conference intensive, “Sensing Personal Stories: Discover Those Hidden Gems!” 1:00-5:00 pm, Friday, April 1 at Sharing the Fire 2016. Visit the Sharing the Fire pages on this website to register for the intensive and the conference.

Want to share your own ideas about using the senses to develop personal stories? Leave a comment.

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