October 09, 2010

Cathryn Wellner on the risks the storyteller takes

Cathyrn Wellner graces these pages today with her guest essay. 

Here’s some background: Cathryn is part of an international network of storytellers. These courageous folk operate in the oral tradition of Homer.

For a decade, between careers as a school librarian and later as a community development consultant, Cathryn performed as a storyteller, spoke at conferences, and offered workshops in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. Initially her audiences were almost all school children.

One of Cathryn's first experiences in storytelling, for a book store audience in Rochester, New York

Gradually, she says, she began to understand the hunger we all share for stories and how deeply healing they can be and worked less with young audiences and more with adults. Cathryn tells us, “It is not an easy way to make a living, but it is profoundly satisfying, and there is no retirement age. I still perform occasionally and recently taught a session in narrative medicine to nursing students, via Webinar.”

With pleasure, with honor, with debt to her wisdom and generosity, I give you Cathryn Wellner.

Taking Risk
                                  by Cathryn Wellner

The places I am hurt most mark the places I am least tolerant, most vicious. Where I have been gravely injured and am most healed, these form the scant geography of my wisdom. Where I have never been hurt at all, where I have never lacked for resource or nurture, these are the stories I find it most difficult to perceive. ~ Joanne Arnott, “Storytelling: A Constellation” in By, For & About Women
 Writing truth

This quotation came back to me as I read Mary L. Tabor’s literate, eloquent, joyous and painful memoir, (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story. There were times, as I read, I realized I was holding my breath, anxious about the next revelation. I know why. Mary has worked through her pain, resolved her confusion, and risen like the Phoenix. But while she was writing the blog that became a book, she was still in the middle of it. She has told me—and you can see this for yourself in her book—that the writing process, not of catharsis, but of the creation of something ‘other’ gave her life a fullness that, she says, “only the attempt to create art can do.”

But on the page, you will still see the rawness of her journey. That journey made me look at the sore places in my own heart. In spite of the passage of years, I still have stories I am not ready to lift out of the journals and letters where they lie like ogres ready to eat my soul. Mary’s book inspires me to complete the work I need to do before I can have the courage to share them. Her book has set in motion some important healing in me. Time to take the coverings off some old wounds and let healing air onto them.

So it did not surprise me to learn that one of Mary’s readers reacted with alarm to something she read in (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story. No one can write that honestly and not rake fingernails over someone’s soul wounds or deepest fears. When a reader recoils because the door to her spiritual closet has been flung open, the monsters released, the writer can’t help but feel responsible. Yet if writers hold back from the searing stories, we are left alone on our perilous journeys.

Sometimes our words are daggers to another’s soul.

During my years as a traveling storyteller, I occasionally knew I’d hit the explosion button. Sometimes the story that triggered the response was so innocuous I was completely flummoxed. Other times, I knew the story was difficult but hoped my telling would lead listeners to safety.                         
Cathryn telling stories at the Belfast Yarnspinners gathering, well-known Northern Irish storyteller looking on
Early in my storytelling career, one story blew up in my face. It was the account of a child who was the butt of teasing. I thought I had dealt with my own complicated reaction to her plight. So I launched the new work with a group I figured would be receptive.

As the story unfolded, the temperature in the room changed from warm to frosty. Though the remaining stories were among my sure-fire audience pleasers, they might as well have been blocks of ice. They did nothing to thaw the room.

I’d never experienced that kind of sudden freeze. Fortunately, a friend was in the audience. We had coffee together the next day. As I shared my distress, she gently asked questions that helped me see I had not fully processed the difficult emotions the story triggered in me. I had told it too soon. The audience felt my discomfort, and it set off their alarms.

The experience taught me to do my own inner work on a story before sharing it with an audience. People are generally too polite to walk out, and they can’t put down the book and protect themselves in a performance setting. I learned to hold onto my stories until I no longer relived the pain each time I told them.

Going public with pain

With that lesson in mind I was horrified when, years later, one of my storytelling students invited me to a one-woman show. She was inviting everyone she knew to hear the story of the years of her father’s sexual abuse. She had rented a hall and baked cookies.

I was mortified but could think of no gentle way of refusing to come. She wanted me to see what she had done with what she had learned in the workshops. I wondered if she had been absent when I talked about the importance of not using the audience as a crying towel.

The hall was packed. She set the scene and then spun a story of survival and triumph so magical I still get shivers when I think about it. She was not a victim. She carried no guilt. She was a powerful woman who had experienced the horrors of degradation but emerged whole and healthy. When the last words of her performance died away, the audience rose spontaneously in a standing ovation.

We cannot control others’ responses.
                                                                                                        Cathryn sharing stories in Kalispell, Montana
Most of my own challenging storytelling experiences, and those of colleagues, have not had such straightforward causes and effects. One colleague was telling a story to a group of school children when the death of a parent in an old folktale sent a little girl into spasms of grief. The storyteller decided to retire that particular story from her repertoire.   

Some time after the incident, my friend learned the child’s mother had died only months before. The father had never talked with his daughter about their loss. Instead, he had walled off his emotions and tried to give her a normal childhood.                                                   
The child felt she had to protect her father from her own sorrow so never mentioned her mother—until the story ripped off her protective scarring. The girl’s teacher had spoken with the father and learned the story had been a key. Father and daughter used it to unlock and share their grief.

The truth is, beyond setting our own internal house in order and trying to act responsibly, we cannot control the impact our stories have, whether they are written or told. And we must tell hard stories, must allow our readers or listeners the catharsis of hearing how others have survived painful experiences.

When our best efforts are rejected

For the most part, storytellers and writers are not privy to whatever it is that unsettles our listeners or readers. We only occasionally learn we have caused pain, and that shatters us.

When Mary shared one reader’s troubling response to her eloquent book, I wrote back: “The woman may not be able to articulate what scared her so much that she had to run away screaming. Perhaps she’s not yet healed from some relationship or is involved in one that’s on shaky grounds. Maybe she’s held captive by religious teachings she is afraid to question, in case the answers might crumble her world.

“Whatever the case, she’s taken her own anxieties and projected them onto you, in a way that triggers the deepest fear in any writer—that what we have to say is unworthy and that perhaps that means we are unworthy. That you’ve had so much positive response to your splendid book gets placed on one side of the balance. On the other side is the heavy stone of her reaction. No one’s immune from the bashing that does to the spirit, even someone as accomplished, talented, open, and intelligent as you.”

Wisdom from one who came before

In her 1938 book, If You Want to Write, Barbara Ueland wrote, “I think that when people condemn what we do, they are symbolically destroying us. Hence the excruciatingly painful feeling, though to our common sense it seems foolish and self-centered to feel so bad.”

When we release our story-children, the offspring of our creative imaginations, into the world, we become sensitive plants, recoiling from unkind touch. It is then we need the words of Barbara Ueland:
 “What comes truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth.”

Read Cathryn’s blogs Catching Courage  (links here to Story Route & Crossroads)
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