Category Archives: Best Work

Tender Years

I had the distinct pleasure last week of hosting Joe Lambert and Brooke Hessler from the Center for Digital Storytelling for a workshop at Kenyon. I believed that I was going in as the on-site tech support guy, so I didn’t think I was going to make a story. See,  I was going to be helpful to other people, and watch Joe and Brooke to really learn how to facilitate a story circle.

Concetta (who had been in our 2012 workshop), said that was sad, because I’m a good storyteller. (Which is not, to be honest, something I’d gone into this workshop considering.) And there was a ripple of agreement in the room, that my colleagues wanted me with them as a participant. And Joe said “no free riders.”

So I started wracking my brain for a story to tell.

The penny dropped when, during another person’s turn in the story circle, Joe pointed out that writing a letter to someone can be a great storytelling prompt. I started thinking about people I’d like to talk to, people I might owe a thank-you note or an explanation.

I remembered that I have a story which recently eluded telling.

And here’s another way to tell it.

From a storytelling perspective, shifting the audience made all the difference in the world. By making it a piece for Melanie, instead of for “the world”, clarifying an in-joke became sharing an anecdote. And technically, relating the story out loud, and getting feedback from a room of supportive colleagues, helped me find a lot of the connective tissue which I didn’t find alone with my keyboard.

So thank you, my Kenyon and CDS colleagues (and my wife, who saw a rough cut), for sharing your courage, for your aesthetic input, and for sharing this story with me.

Rained real hard and it rained for a real long time

Of my storytelling to date, I think this is the one I’m most proud of. But then, it’s about one of the things in my life I’m most proud of.

I made this during a workshop we hosted for faculty at Kenyon. It’s out of the Berkeley Center for Digital Storytelling model. (The workshop was actually coordinated by a trainer from Ohio State’s Digital Storytelling program.) This is a storytelling tradition which focuses on autobiographical narratives, respecting the storyteller’s experience and the “gift of voice” when they tell it themselves. There’s a strong social justice component to telling untold stories, which I think is part of why this particular mode of digital storytelling is appealing to academics (especially those pursuing a service learning pedagogy).

It’s also a very intense process – really a full 40-hour week of work, considering the writing process, the tech training, and the process of recording, finding and layering soundtrack, and image selection, ordering, and import. A tremendous amount of the work is done in writing circles, in which these personal narratives are laid out for the group’s supportive critique. That’s a lot of vulnerability to give, and accept – and honestly, my story didn’t require the kind of exposure which some other storytellers engaged.

This story is based on the diary I kept while on the rebuilding trip, and audioblogs I made at the time. Those audio reports were a particularly exciting composition exercise – every night, imagining myself as David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, I sat down and wrote my reflections on the day and the trip, and edited them into a short news-like report for my friends up north. I then posted them to Blogger through a now-defunct service which let me make audio posts through a cell phone call. (These were the pre-smartphone days, kids, at least for me. I was working on a Virgin Mobile pay-as-you-go burner.)

Fortunately, I saved those MP3s before the system went belly-up. I’ve put them on Soundcloud, but marked as private. I haven’t decided whether I want to revive those particular moments yet; as years have passed I’m less impressed with the emotional rawness and quick polish of that work.

Truthiness! Stephen Colbert in a parody of the I had a fair amount of trouble with the “truthiness” of the process. Some of the images in that movie are actual shots of the day in question. Some are other shots of our trip, or of New Orleans. Some are CC-licensed shots from Flickr or elsewhere, unrelated to my life at all. I had to wrestle with that. Did I sell out my own story by using a picture of “college students” which is from Madrid, not Gambier? Did I fail to carry the stories of the people of New Orleans when I used pictures of cleaning up a South Asian volcano blast? At the end of the day, I decided that the images help me tell a story which I still believe needs telling, and I made my peace with it. I still grit my jaw every time I look at them, but I’m proud enough of the result to share it with you.

Did you go crazy, or did you report?

I’ve been meaning to transfer some of my better stories from my first, late, and unlamented blog. My Facebook feed is spilling over with people’s remembrances of September Eleventh today, and I thought I might share mine.

This was originally written for a contest at Powell’s bookstore, in 2006 I think.


Lynn walked into our morning meeting in tears, and announced that a plane from Boston had flown into the World Trade Center. My stomach flipped as I thought of my friends who were moving out of Massachusetts that week. I didn’t know their plans. I didn’t know where they were. All I could do was run to my office in panic and try to find out. Today, even recalling the memory makes me ill.

(It wasn’t a rational fear; Michael and Ann share a fear of flying which borders on the pathological, and they were in Western Massachusetts anyway. In a psychic bond, their first thoughts were for my father, who at least does get on airplanes regularly without chemical sedation.)

Everyone has a September Eleventh story, and I suppose mine is similar to most. For most of us, our fear of loss was actually greater than our loss. That is, after all, why they call it a “terror attack.”

Our stories don’t often extend to the next few days, as America walked in our haze of grief and fear and senselessness. The media virtually suspended itself. My 160 cable channels seemed all to be set to CNN. After about two days, I’d had all the news I could stand, and I had to turn away from the box.

I couldn’t begin to think about reading nonfiction, and fiction seemed to be either too heavy or too light to handle. But poetry… maybe poetry would have something to say.

And that’s how I came to read T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding in September 2001. I opened that big Norton Anthology of English Literature which every once and future English major owns, and turned its onionskin paper, and looked for solace.

Eliot wrote Little Gidding in 1942, while he watched the Nazis bombing the cities and civilians of Britain. It grabbed me like a branch grabs a drowning swimmer. This expatriate Missourian knew what I felt, had seen what I’d seen and more, and needed to tell me something. And I desperately needed to hear it. Teachers talking about “timeless literature” came into shining focus like never before.

I needed two tries to read the second section, depicting the aftermath of a bombing raid, “ash on an old man’s sleeve” and a ghost in the twilight. Eliot’s burnt roses could have fallen from Windows on the World. And yet, if I could not be distracted, at least I knew we were not alone.

Eliot did have solace for me. Little Gidding says that life somehow must triumph. I thought of Eliot, reading Julian of Norwich, and passing that thousand-year-old crutch to me:

Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.

No one in America had said “all shall be well” in days. But if Julian could believe it, and Eliot could believe it, perhaps I could as well.

And in September of 2001, that voice coming through the page was enough. It was more real, and more comforting, than any voice coming from the box, even than any of the voices around me. Personal sadness has brought me back to Little Gidding many times in the following years, and every time, I feel that branch brush me in the rushing waters, and I grab hold.