I’m a storyteller. Most of my friends are storytellers; playwrights, poets, novelist, singers, songwriters, and artists of all mediums. We all tell stories for different reasons, and yet for the same purpose, storytelling aids us in understanding the world around us.
Storytelling predates writing. The most primitive forms of storytelling were usually oral expressions. Storytellers come in many forms, with many voices and tools, from poetry and literature to graffiti and fine art. We need storytellers, artist and writers, to elicit passion and emotions, especially in dark times when we can so easily avert our eyes from troubling events like a cultural revolution, rebellion, social injustice, corrupt politicians, police brutality, the imprisonment or genocide of an entire people.
Though the ancient origins of storytelling have vanished into the mist of time, the importance of storytelling and those who tell stories has not. From cave dwellings to the recontours of Native Indian lore, families and cultures with strong narratives and passionate tellers, thrive in their collective story.
Think about times spent sitting around the kitchen table with your family – your witnesses on this journey – as they tell and retell all the often cringe-worthy memories of you as a child, or their experiences during the Great Depression, or whatever the family stories are. Think how bonding that is/was, how it informed your sense of who you are and where you come from. At my grandma’s house, all of us crowded into the yellow-vinyl kitchen booth, drank weak Folgers coffee, my aunts’ chain-smoked Salem cigarettes, and talked like ‘mag-pies’ grandma always said. And at that jam-packed table every story started with “I remember that time you….”
Capturing and retelling the stories of our collective history is vital to understanding our existence on this planet – trust me, when grandma is gone, you’re gonna wish you took notes, and you’re gonna remember with heartache and joy, every story she ever told you. Our stories are important.
Storytelling is vital to the human experience. It allows us to digest information with greater ease by more effectively linking that information to our feelings and then our thoughts. Generally, once we’ve felt something, we don’t forget it. I recall years ago, seeing the movie, Dead Man Walking, and how when my friends and I left the theater we talked about the death penalty, I recall feeling very differently about that controversial topic after seeing one man’s poignant story.
One of the reasons I wrote my novel, Return to Sender was to reiterate the history (lest we are doomed to repeat it), and the stories I grew up with as the child of a Korean War veteran, about the atrocities of the brutal North Koreans against their own people, and most especially against their own orphans. A topic as timely today (sadly) as it was in the 1950s. In my novel I paid tribute to the most haunting aspect of the Korean War for both my father and my father-in-law; the slaughter of innocent children by their own people. Having these precious photographs of many of these children made their stories personal to me.
There are certain aspects of history that resonate deeply with all of us. For example, my talented neighbors, Jan and Chris Hopkins, who make a great mead (home-made wine), but who are also internationally recognized, multi-award-winning artists, illustrators and storytellers. Their most recent creative endeavor of depicting the WWII internment of the Japanese in America, was motivated by Jan’s desire to learn more about her cultural identity. As a child of detained Japanese Americans, there was a lack of information about her family legacy and the ordeal of internment that they endured. Jan needed to know her story, so she and Chris have set out on a mission to share their stories through visual arts. Their joint exhibit at Everett’s Shack Center for the Arts starts June 21st thru September 2018.
Chris is a historian through his art. His paintings tell very specific aspects of the American story that resonate with
him on a soulful level. He captures moments that harken back to moments like this young Japanese-American woman who is pregnant, alone and just ‘relocated’ to an internment camp – what does the future hold for her and her unborn child now that her country (America) has turned on her? It is important to humankind to keep those stories alive so they never happen again.
Chris also painted an entire series of over 60 paintings of the Tuskegee Airmen which travels the country in art shows, like locally at the Shack Center in Everett. The Tuskegee Airmen series portrays the adventures of the first African American fighter pilots, their crews, families and legacy.
As an illustrative historian Chris has captured this pivotal moment in time; At the onset of World War II, the segregated US armed forces declined to train African Americans as pilots until a lawsuit opened the door. The Army Air Corps acquiesced to an experiment training pilots at Tuskegee University, Alabama. In March 1942 the first class of African-American aviation cadets earned their silver wings and became the nation’s
first black military pilots. Between 1941 and 1945, Tuskegee trained over 1,000 black aviators for the war effort. Chris started his Tuskegee Airmen series as part of his work for the Northwest chapter of the Air Force Art program. Over the years, the series evolved beyond the Air Force Art program to become a personal mission and passion for him. Every one of these paintings tells us a vital part of our history; who we were, who we are now, how far we’ve come, and sadly how far we have to go.
Or below, this modern-day image, social commentary, where a homeless mother and her child sit starving on the steps of the land of plenty, a posh bakery, where inside, too busy to notice, are two girls on their phones. Just as I tell stories with words, Chris uses images, and is a perceptive storyteller of our times, the good and the bad.
Regardless of medium or craft, storytelling is significant because it can illuminate moral, ethical, spiritual lessons in non-preachy ways that people can easily contemplate. Great stories engender empathy by helping people relate to someone they may never have connected with before.
Just as important as our intimate family stories are in reminding us where our faith and courage comes from – be it strong Scottish, Jewish, Irish, or French roots – and what our ancestors overcame, it’s also vital to keep historic stories alive so we never forget what our fears and prejudices can become.
What stories matter to you? Tell them.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
And, big kudos to my neighbor; Art Work by Chris Hopkins Selected for Inclusion in Major Traveling Exhibition Organized by Norman Rockwell Museum – Reimagining the Four Freedoms
In 2017, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, sent out a call to artists to create works that would reimagine President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear— or explore the meaning of freedom today, for possible inclusion in the major touring exhibition: Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. From 1000 submissions, 36 artists were accepted—including two works by local artist, Chris Hopkins—for the contemporary section of the exhibition, titled “Reimagining the Four Freedoms.”
In our time of troubling HOMELESSNESS in a country of plenty, this painting is particularly poignant.
If you liked this please share, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest or Tweet it out. Thanks. Mindy
Lately, I’ve become especially in tune with the way people describe their relationship with cancer – and trust me, it is a relationship – or the words they use when expressing compassion toward me. It’s very common to hear statements like “You’re battling this disease” or “you’re gonna win the war” or other combat-like metaphors. I, myself even use the term ‘cancer-warrior’ just because I like the sound, and besides, who doesn’t want to be a warrior, right? But in my recent reanalyzing of this relationship with dis-ease, I am reviewing my own language. I’m a writer, words are my play things, I can do this.
I’ve come to realize that being a warrior requires a battle, it is a combative term after all. And therein lies my problem.
I’ve been living with cancer for two decades now. I have had three major surgeries and two minor. I’m down a couple organs and twice have had my throat cut from jugular to jugular – only nicked once – and have lived to tell. Alas, here I am again exhibiting irregular tests, shadowy images on scans and abnormal even ‘aggressive’ tumor indicators. Mine is a rare cancer so there isn’t much study available. As a matter of fact last week I was told that my closely-monitored 20 year old file is a great resource in the search for answers about Medullary Carcinoma – cool, glad I can help. Anyway, I’m tired of partaking in such an adversarial relationship. Besides, maybe all that fighting has added to the struggle. Besides, words are powerful things, and as my gramma used to say, ‘you can never rise above your words.’ So if I can’t rise above them, then I need to raise them to level at which I would like to live.
Cancer, at least my cancer is something I have to co-exist with. Oh sure, it may be like living with a troublemaking roommate I can’t get rid of, but live with I must. It’s in my throat, so I live with a mostly metaphorical knife at my throat, but sometimes that metaphor turns literal and surgical cutting ensues.
For a long time I also used antagonistic, rebellious ‘I’m goin’ to war’ metaphors. But now I’m attempting to alter my orientation from combatting my dis-ease to embracing and partnering with it. After all, we do share the same space, so it follows that we have to learn to connect and peacefully co-exist. HA! As I write this I keep imagining the roommate, Spike (played by Rhys Ifans) in the movie, Notting Hill. It made me smile time and time again when I was recuperating from one of my surgeries a few years ago. It hurt to laugh then, but Spike, cracked me up!
Anyway, I’ve come to realize that I can’t truly heal myself of something I’m not connected to. Have I spent all these years putting my energy into fighting instead of healing, meanwhile thinking the two were synonymous? What’s that Tony Robbins quote, ‘where focus goes, energy flows’… so true.
Well, I’ve decided to focus my energy and thoughts on healing instead of fighting and that requires a new set of skills and language. Kinda like Hugh Grant’s character, William Thacker in Notting Hill, had to do with Spike. He really had to make peace with his undesirable roommate because they shared the same space. Ultimately they became great friends.
Making peace, not war may be the best motto in life in general and may serve the overall quality of life whether you’re a patient or not. Aiming our energy towards the healing process helps us connect with our journey through any kind of dis-ease (illness, mourning, divorce, horrible roommates, etc.). It’s far more empowering than directing energy towards the anger linked with the cancer, which keeps you interlocked in a victim role and feeling you need to fight. Maybe changing the words, the language of war to a language of compassion and self-love is the path that will illuminate this often exhausting and emotional journey. Either way, since I play with words, that’s what I’ll be doing.
Oh, and if you aren’t familiar with these images of Spike, then you have to watch Notting Hill. He’s brilliant! Still laughing.
If you liked this please tweet or instagram it out.
It’s vital that we, as storytellers, understand what ALL our characters (major and minor) want and need. If you have a cast of passionate characters, passionate about willy-nilly things, a story can get befuddling and difficult. Unless their passion circles the same topic the story wanders off in too many directions and then a reader gets lost.
For example, I recently read a manuscript wherein one character was passionate about rebuilding old cars, another passionate about remodeling kitchens, and a third passionate about going to day spas. Okay, interesting. Unfortunately these three passions never intersected in the story. I suggested to the writer that if all three could meet as a result of vintage cars, remodeling, or at a day spa, then they could bond over that single shared passion, the crime could have something to do with that, and so on. But instead the reader was sent in three different directions, down three separate roads only to wonder why and then quickly get tired of the story.
When I realized that the cast of characters in my upcoming novel, all of whom are holocaust survivors, all had the same needs (safety, community, nourishment, etc.) I had to write them with conflicting wants or the story would be boring (remember, wants and needs are VERY different) – some want to remember while others will do anything to forget. Some seek justice while others have lost hope in the jurisdiction of this world. Some seek the truth while others see only lies – and so on. These conflicting desires surrounding the same topic (the holocaust/concentration camp survival) create conflict no matter what else is happening. That tension filled topic is at the core of my story and keeps the spokes of my story-wheel spinning all in the same direction.
So remember, know the wants and needs of your characters and ALWAYS create conflict on every page.
Here’s a great article from K.M. Weiland on The Thing Your Character Wants VS The Thing Your Character Needs.
Last night I had the pleasure of guest lecturing at the University of Washington again, in the Fiction writing class. One young man asked me a question toward the end of the evening that I felt I left unanswered, and it bothered me all night. He asked how a writer can keep from being overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to write a novel and how much there is to learn. I’ve been there!
Anyway, I half way answered before other students chimed in with other great ideas, but I felt I never fully addressed his sincere concern. What I did say was to stay connected to your passion, remember why you wanted to be a writer in the first place, because that part of you can get SO lost in all the work. Have artist/writer’s dates with yourself, I told him. Go to coffee shops or sit on a mountain or go to the beach with a pad and pen and write (old school) because the actual act of writing taps into your subconscious and connects you with your desires, and can connect you to a deeper level of storytelling. I reminded him about what I said early in my talk; that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship and that it’s critical to remember that, and to give yourself some grace. But I didn’t’ get much further than that as it was the end of the evening and we all had to go drive in the snow.
What I’d like to add is this…
By grasping the reality that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship you can lessen the burden of the pursuit of perfection because it’s unachievable for the vast majority of writers, especially in the beginning. You can only learn so much at a time, but keep learning, keep growing, keep expanding your writerly pursuits, knowledge and craft tools, and just get better with every new project, and remember (and cherish) the writing tools (and mentors) that aid you in the journey.
Most importantly, if writing is your passion, keep writing. Find mentors like your instructor, Scott Driscoll. Find your tribe, I wish I had told him that. Find a group of like-minded writers to meet up with every so often, either just for coffee and story talk or to write with. Finding your tribe helps you stay connected. Go to writing conferences. Read great works of literature (however you define them) and get inspired to do the same. Emulate other authors who you admire. Peruse bookstore shelves, read the first sentence of ten best sellers (in your genre) and go sit in the bookstore coffee shop (or wherever you like) and write.
Also, if you love language don’t forget to play with words. I love the sounds and meanings of certain words and try to use them in my writing when I can. Or concepts, like how an object can be metaphor in a story, that’s what I was playing with when I took a break from working on my novel a couple years ago and wrote a 700 word story that won the Writer’s Digest fiction contest. So play with words, who knows where it may lead. Then, if stuck, take a break from what you’re working on and work on something else. If you’re writing a dark, difficult piece, take a break and write something funny. Play with your words, they are your tools.
Write free hand, old school like Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down the Bones. Pen and paper. It’s a transformational writing tool that connects you to your work on a deeper level than imagined.
A couple of my favorite writer’s dates with myself are; I love to go to coffee shops where I never go, in different parts of the city or take the ferry over to the islands and go to coffee shops there, and write. The fresh air on the ferry, the water and the change of scene reawakens my writing mind. I also go to art museums and sit on those couches in the middle of the room – where no one really ever sits – and gaze at great paintings, this stirs something inside me to write. Don’t know why, it just does. Last week I went to Portland, stayed in a hotel, wrote till late night, got up early went to the corner café for coffee, wrote for a couple more hours and the went on with an exhilarating day (at the art museum) culminating in a writing session back at the same café where my day started, but this time with wine instead of coffee. I needed the time alone, in the city where my next novel takes place – my story world. I was completely recharged within 24 hours of alone time. Thankfully, I have a wonderful husband who encourages these needs in my life. So whatever your life permits, create writer’s dates (no matter how grand or how small), find companions on this life-long journey of learning, and never forget to restore, inspire and encourage yourself.
What stirs your muse? Figure that out and reconnect with it frequently. For every unique writer there is a unique path. Find yours.
I am teaching The Artists Way for Writers at Edmonds Community College if you’d like to explore this further. Be well, keep writing. Cheers, Mindy
|Whether you’re new to The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, or have a shelf filled with years of Morning Pages, our class will reconnect you to your muse. You may be working on a novel, short stories, journaling, or simply wanting to experience enhanced creativity in your life–whatever your goal is, using the tools in Julia Cameron’s bestselling book will help you explore how to engage and invigorate your writing verve.
During our six weeks you will explore the lessons of The Artist’s Way, harnessing your inner creativity, addressing negative beliefs, forming creative allies, making artistic u-turns, blasting through blocks, making writing dates with a muse, letting your imagination play, and creating a contract that honors the writer’s life. We will have two optional writing dates at local coffee shops outside of campus. Prior knowledge of The Writer’s Way not necessary, but you can purchase Cameron’s best selling book here.
We all land on one side or the other of the ‘flight or fight’ issue. And anyone who knows me will likely say I’m a fighter. And anyone who knows my mom will tell you she’s a flighter. It’s been a long standing joke in the family, ‘Mom’s on walk about’ always meant she may be gone for a day or two, or a year. We, my three brothers and me, grew up knowing she may disappear at any point, so we took care of ourselves. I think I became that fighter because someone had to stay and take care of things.
When she was 80 years old I had to take her driving privileges (keys and car) away before she crashed THROUGH another Arby’s drive through window, or hurt herself or someone else. Mom has always been active and on the go, so ending that part of her life was difficult and sad, no more garage sales, no more Value Village and no more senior breakfast specials at Denny’s or their dueling rivalry, Shari’s Restaurant, and no more ‘flight’ capabilities. I wasn’t sure how she’d handle not being able to escape.
Soon it was evident that living on her own was no longer a healthy situation: despite her youthful face and attitude, mom has never liked vegetables or exercise and so was in poor health for a modern day 80 year old. We soon found a retirement home in her area. My brothers and I hoped that the retirement center would provide ample activities to keep her socially, mentally and physically active, like in high school. After all, she always said her happiest time in life was high school: of course, as her child that’s gratifying, ‘thanks mom’.
And though mom spoke of the other residents as if they were old people and she couldn’t figure out why she had to live with them, at first it seemed like it might work out. At least the socially active part kept her fully engaged. And by fully engaged I mean that she and her new cohorts in the ‘home’ became like any high school’s gaggle of mean girls. And in her early 1950s high school, my mom – a beauty queen, entertainer and one of the prettiest girls in school, sadly, was a leader of one of those toxic packs of mean girls. So mom finally returned to her youth, her happiest time; gossiping, mocking and making fun of some of the other (80 plus year old) girls. This regression was unexpected (though not surprising) and sorely disappointing – proof that even old leopards do not change their spots. Obviously, who we truly are is revealed in stressful situations, and apparently times of boredom.
I soon realized that much of their gossipy activity was due (not entirely) but largely to monotony. The home she was in did not manage a lively activities calendar, which I have since learned is critical to a retirement community. This means that there was very little outside stimulation or visiting entertainment, so mom and her cronies created their own. And left to their own diminishing devices meant mom FREQUENTLY asked me to come in and read from my novel or do a talk on travel to Europe with my ‘fancy gadgets’ – her words to describe my laptop and Power Point. She’s always been proud of me, so, I did do presentations, talks and even sat in on a few of their ‘happy hours’ with them.
Mom called their happy hours the ‘dark times’ due to the substandard music and or other entertainment during their oft-failed attempt at one scanty hour of happiness per week.
I always brought a good bottle of wine and we smuggled it in so we could have a decent glass of wine instead of the boxed mystery elixir they served. Mom often invited her closest friend to sit with us, a one-time (and lifelong) airline stewardess who still dressed the part; small silk neck scarves from Paris tied in a perfect knot at the side of her neck, trinket jewelry from Asia, and sweaters and vests made in Ireland, red lipstick and short bleached blonde hair. She was 90, never married, always a beauty who traveled the world and who somehow landed in this home with no one to visit her and restricted to traveling with her walker only as far as the front lobby. The only thing that truly bonded these two women was their fading beauty, their tendency to be mean girls and their STRONG desire to escape the place, the age, and the circumstances where they now found themselves – like Alice after falling through the rabbit hole – shocked and surprised at their surroundings, wondering, how did this happen?
I’m confident that if either of them could still drive we would have had a Thelma and Louise state of affairs.
Things were copasetic for about three years, and during those years my brother who lives in Portland handled a great deal of what it takes to manage her healthcare and weekly shopping trips, and I handled the rest from here in Seattle. It took years and a great deal of paperwork and financing, but we finally had her set up where she was safe, had a nice place to live, meals, meds, personal care aids, and lots of caretakers on duty 24-7.
Still, mom constantly complained about everything in the home, begging me to come down (from Seattle to Portland) to entertain her friends, and constantly tried to find ways to bust out of the place, the ‘big house’ she called it. One year, after we had argued on the phone about her moving out on her own; which would have meant no one to cook for her, check her insulin, give her the correct amount of her meds, and no alert button to press if she fell, I agreed to drive down and take her to a local Halloween party at a neighboring retirement home. When I arrived, she came down to the lobby of her building dressed as a prison inmate (black stipes, hat and a chain around her ankle). Ever the actress, and always one to make a theatrical point.
That day I realized she never has been and never NEVER will be happy, so I’d settle for keeping her safe. My mother makes most people feel helpless because she is never happy or satisfied. Trying to please someone who will never be pleased is exhausting, and helplessness is soul sucking, so I stopped trying to make her happy. But safe, safe I can live with.
Anyway, during the last two years her stewardess friend grew weaker and weaker, no longer able to even travel from her room down the long hallway to mom’s apartment. Then two of mom’s other friends died, which is not uncommon in a home for the elderly, but remember, in mom’s mind she was still an imprisoned teenager trying to find a way out.
But then the stewardess died. Mom went silent for several weeks. Barely any conversation at all, not even complaining, which had me worried. But I should have known better, after all, mom’s a runner.
All of a sudden, I got a call from my two brothers who live in a small town on the Oregon Coast. Mom had somehow convinced them she should live in their house and that she could take care of herself, it would be no big deal. She swore them to secrecy, and covertly made all the arrangements to break out of the big house. Those two unsuspecting (ever culpable) brothers had never been involved in all the doctors’ appointments, and overall healthcare mom required, like my other brother and I had been. So now they have their hands full and because they went along with her secrecy, I wish them well. I can’t help them, but I wish them well.
As I said, mom’s a runner. Not a fighter, but a flighter. The death of her comrade in mean girl affairs stunned mom’s teenage sensibilities to her core, disturbed her naïve sense of mortality. When her friend took her final journey from this world, mom absolutely could not comprehend what was happening – Alice lost in (what’s the opposite of Wonderland?) anyway, mom’s flight reaction has always told her to run. And run she has. But this time there’s no running from old age. You have to befriend aging, I always told her, eat your vegetables, take your walks, work out, laugh, enjoy life, don’t resent it, and treat others as you would like to be treated, and so on. And though this is not and never will be mom’s credo, it is mine, and for that I owe her a debt of gratitude for always showing me what not to do. She’s a great life guide.
As a writer I always observe others, trying to figure out why they do, say or act the way they do. It’s all material, right? I’ve formed most of my theories on life based on how to not be like my mom in most ways. Don’t get me wrong, she is loving to her children, and as far as I know has never killed anyone (I feel the strongest urge to type ‘yet’ right here, but I won’t.)
Anyway, additionally I learned three life lessons from mom’s retirement home experience; people do not change their spots as they age, and people who live in those homes can get bored, and that I can do something to help them – because when you help someone else it assuages your (eternal) sense of helplessness.
I can’t do anything for my mom who is already calling my other brother begging him to rescue her, but I can be a little comfort to others. I volunteer at local retirement homes to read to residents, talk about my book, or the history that went into the back story, or talk about being a cancer survivor, or my travels, or even gardening, whatever else I can do to alleviate their boredom for one afternoon.
When I did a presentation about my novel last week at a local retirement home there were three Korean War veterans in the audience, which is rare. One man patted my hand as I left and thanked me for writing about the Korean War. He had tears in his eyes. He said that while listening to me talk about my protagonist (a Korean War Hero) he felt like a young man again, a soldier, he recalled the beauty of the Korean countryside. He said that part of him had been asleep for a good long time, and said thank you for waking him up and reminding him of things long forgotten. He warmed my heart and confirmed for me that just visiting with people can make all the difference on the world.
There’s nothing I can do to change my mom’s experience with aging, but I can add a little happiness to the dark times others may be experiencing on their final journeys. That much I know for sure.