Friday, August 15, 2014

Finding Our Voices; Finding Our Stories.

In storytelling, there is a ‘Rule of Three’ that we seem to follow instinctively…there seems to be great magic in threes: 3 bears, three wishes, three questions, three tasks. Think about it…three Musketeers, three spirits who guide Scrooge to his redemption. We superstitiously wait for the third piece of bad luck, or the third death.

I recently received three message that combine to convince me that we can build on the successes of last year’s Legislative Session, and we can amplify our influence on policy makers next year. We have a magic opportunity.

When I went to the Capitol to talk to lawmakers and to watch the House vote to override Governor Fallin’s veto of HB2625, I watched passionate moms and dads trying to bring their children to life in front of these Legislators. Moms pulled out folders of academic awards. I saw certificates, ribbons. Dads brought report cards to prove their children were smart and hard working. Many moms whipped out their cell phones and showed pictures of their children as they described their frustration with the idea of basing a child’s future on one standardized test. It was moving to watch and listen to these parents as they conjured up their kiddos in the Capitol.

Later, in the Gallery, read for the debate and vote, I sat next to a mom who sat up straighter as Rep. Jason Nelson spoke about meeting a mother who described her son’s struggles. “That’s me!” she whispered, and we all smiled. Then, Nelson continued to make his own point from her story, and she deflated. “That is not what I said! I didn’t say that!” Because she told him her story, it floated in the air, and he chose to listen and reinterpret her story as he pleased. In the air, it became his story to manipulate and rework. She was horrified and I knew we needed to make certain this kind of betrayal of our stories never happens again.

We need to make our stories our own. We need to interpret them and free them from another’s manipulation or misunderstanding. In my mind, that meant we must write them. Write them, print them, share them. Not only with Legislators, but with the media, as letters to the editors. As guest blogs. We must control our stories by committing them to print. That way, we can point back to our words and explain, “You need to look again. Here is my point.”

But how to do this?

Later in the summer I listened to Terry Tempest Williams’ memoir, When Women Were Birds. It was an audible Daily Deal, and I was intrigued. I ended up buying a paperback also…listening to Williams read her own words, I was convinced she wrote this book in verse. Williams inherited her mother’s journal after her mother’s death. After enough time had passed, she opened a journal, and found it blank. Journal after journal. Blank. This led Williams to find examples of her mother’s written voice, and to search for her own.  “In a voiced community we all flourish.”

One incident in the book resonated. Williams is a passionate naturalist and member of the Wilderness Society. She loved the outdoors and she loved the sanctuary of Red Rock Wilderness in Utah. When the wilderness was threatened by legislation to allow development she realized she had a tool: her voice. She and fellow writers created an anthology, Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness. They encouraged each other to write, in their own voice…they compiled Testimony into a chap book, and they went to Washington with copies for every member of Congress. They were determined to use their voices and words to protect the beauty and power of their wilderness. A bill passed the House to protect the wilderness, and words from Testimony were read aloud in the debate in the Senate. Words were READ…not interpreted, not manipulated, not mistaken.  Testimony is now part of the Congressional Record.  “Afterward, President Clinton held up a copy of Testimony and said, ‘This little book made a difference.’” What began as a desperate, quixotic gambl ebecame a force too powerful to be ignored.

I wanted this example to be our inspiration. Written words have power, they have permanence. I wanted us to find our voice as Williams did.

The third bit of magic in my thinking was another book. Soon after reading Williams’ book, I read Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron. A writer friend had recommended it to aspiring novelists as a vital lesson on how and why to construct stories. I was not the audience for this book, since I do not want to write fiction, but the lessons and observations could easily be adapted for parents and grandparents and teachers, determined to invite lawmakers into their own realities. Cron uses cognitive research to convince her readers that everything in life begins and ends with a story worth telling. I found so many lines that could help others focus on the essence of their stories, ways to inspire empathy and understanding of our lives.

·          Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically, but literally.
·          In other words, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world.
·          Even more exciting, it turns out that a powerful story can have a hand in rewiring the reader’s brain--helping instill empathy, for instance—which is why writers are, and have always been, among the most powerful people in the world.
·          From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next.
·          Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them.
·          Thus story…is an internal journey, not an external one
·          We are looking for a reason to care, so for a story to grab us, not only must something be happening, but also there also be a consequence we can anticipate
·          Whose story is it? What’s happening here? What is at stake?
·          A story must have the ability to engender a sense of urgency from the first sentence.
·          Your first job is to zero in on the point your story is making.
·          A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single, overarching question
·          The more passionate you are about making your point, the more you have to trust your story to convey it
·          Feel first. Think second. That’s the magic of story

It would seem to me that there is a line that could inspire each of us to tell our particular, personal story…a line that resonates in recognition. I believe this is where we can start to write and own our stories.

They are our stories; we must own them. We must control them. We must share them…but on our terms, not as political points for others. Never again should a mother, with her voice trembling, give her story to a policy maker who, because he does not see the words, feels free to twist the meaning, the lesson.

Yes, we continue to tell our stories, but as we do, and as we share those ribbons and certificates and report cards and pictures, we will also share our written words. We will flood them with proof of the damage their policies have done. We will continue to offer suggestions and volunteer to shape policies.

We will do that with words we control. We will do this with our voices and our carefully-crafted stories.

So, those are my magic three…the observation, the lesson on finding voice, and the lesson on finding story.

We can begin now – we can work together and we can have our stories ready to share.

We will fight with voice and story.

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