Monday, March 7, 2011

The Story Catcher Becomes a Story Teller

When I’m not blogging in this space, I teach writing. I work with middle, high school, college and graduate students on their academic writing; business people on workplace writing and, more recently, adults of varying ages who want to write stories from their lives.

The life story writers may not always come into one of my workshops with a specific idea. That’s part of my job: To get them to resurrect scenes and sensations. I provide prompts to help jigger their memories loose: Draw a map of a neighborhood you once lived in. List 10 life-defining choices and five pivotal people. Dig up old photographs and write a profile of a family member. Start writing with the opening line, “I remember…” It doesn’t take much. Or very long. Memories – and even storylines – always rise to the surface.

So it’s interesting to me in retrospect that when I heard, and reported here, about the Jewish Journey Story Booth project at Beth Emet, I wasn’t compelled to be one of the first to sign up. Little else compares with being present when someone accesses a story from their past. One that bubbles up with rich details, like it was yesterday. To hear them! To read them! To help people shape them into artful forms like personal essays and memoirs! Such joy.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in contributing to this noble project – it’s a mission I can get behind - it’s just that I didn’t think my story was all that interesting. What could I possibly talk about for 20 minutes that would hold anyone’s interest, much less my own? Which is, I now realize, what a lot of people first think.

Some gentle nudging from members of the Story Booth team (thank you, Susan Fisher and Debbie Render) and a cautious yes from my husband David Barish (thank you, David) to record with me - got me to sign up. David wrote down some of his memories to prepare. I didn’t. I was hoping, praying, that something would “come to me.”

On the way to Beth Emet for our appointed recording time yesterday, after some back and forth, we decided to treat this like a conversation.

It’s amazing what can happen when you are asked to do something a little different in an environment that is so familiar. The synagogue was bustling with religious school activity. Parents were reading the newspaper, eating bagels and drinking coffee in the front hall. The copy room was turned into “The Green Room” - for preparation and contract signing. (Thanks, Nina Kavin.) The library was turned into a recording studio, in which Heidi Goldfein, who in her radio-ready position as director of production at Chicago Public Radio, made us feel so comfortable. (Thank you, Heidi!)

After the sound levels were approved, we got the go ahead to start. I think I threw out the first question. Something like, “What are some of the defining experiences of your childhood that make you feel Jewish?” Off we went.

The next thing I remember is Heidi putting her hand up to signal that we had only a few minutes left. Oh the parts we hadn’t gotten to yet! So much more to say!

Tonight is the last night of taping, so if you read this after Monday, March 7th, you have missed the chance to speak your story.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t an opportunity to tell your story in other ways. I know you think your story isn’t that interesting. I did, too. But I urge you to take a look at the questions below. See if something sparks you. Find a comfortable position at your laptop or on your couch with a tablet and writing utensil in hand. Start writing. For just 10 minutes.

You may reintroduce yourself to your self. You may rediscover how interesting you are.

Questions for reflection:

What path led you to Beth Emet?

How has being part of Beth Emet influenced your Jewish journey?

Who has been the biggest Jewish influence on your life? What lessons did they teach you?

What are the most important Jewish/spiritual lessons you’ve learned in life?

How has your spiritual life been different than what you’d imagined?

What is your earliest memory of something religious or spiritual? Your happiest memory?

What makes you feel Jewish?

Has there been a particular turning point or event in your Jewish or spiritual life?

Is being Jewish something that’s difficult for you or easy for you? Why?

Has being Jewish always been important to you? How has that changed over the years?

What would you like your children/grandchildren to know about your Jewish journey?

What does God mean to you?


emily said...

and Thank You Ellen,...

Beth said...

From the feedback I've heard, your experience is common; hesitation at first and then elation with having pushed through the initial discomfort to experience something out of the ordinary and, so i've heard, cathartic.

My mom always intended to record my grandfather's life story, but he suffered a massive stroke before she had a chance to act on her intention. I think it's so great that Beth Emet is capturing stories--for the Synagogue's records and for yours!

Ellen Blum Barish said...

Beth: Your family's story "loss" is a bittersweet example
and a cautionary tale when it comes to family story-telling. And your point, well taken. What feels worse? To push through something that may at first feel uncomfortable for a short while or regret having not, at least, tried.
Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Beth!