The scant geography of wisdom

This piece first appeared in October 2010 as a guest post on Mary L. Tabor’s blog, Sex After Sixty. Mary is one of the most literate, eloquent writers I’ve come across. Her posts, and those of her guests, are consistently stimulating and thought provoking.

“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

The dear friend who sent me this quote years ago knew my story. I was a bird with broken wings when she and her spouse took me in. They gave me a resting place until I could fly on my own again.

The words came back to me as I read Mary L. Tabor’s literate, eloquent, and painful memoir, Sex After Sixty. There were times I was holding my breath, shrinking from 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. The rawness of her journey made me look into the sore places in my 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.

So it did not surprise me to learn that one of Mary’s readers reacted with alarm to something she read in Sex After Sixty. 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.

Daggers to another’s soul

During my years as a traveling storyteller, I occasionally knew I’d hit the explosion button in someone. (Others likely just smoldered quietly.) Sometimes the story that triggered the response was so innocuous I was completely flummoxed by the strong reaction. Other times, I knew the story might be difficult for some but hoped my telling would lead them to safety.

Early in my storytelling career, one story exploded in my face. It was the true 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 to a story that dealt with difficult matter.

Cathryn Wellner

I could feel the atmosphere in the room change

I could feel the atmosphere change as the story unfolded. By the time I finished, the temperature in the room had changed from warm to frosty. Though the stories that followed 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 experienced the gamut of responses to more challenging stories but never this kind of sudden freeze. Fortunately, a friend was in the audience. We had coffee together the next day. As I poured out my distress, she gently asked questions that helped me see that particular story was one that triggered emotions in me I hadn’t fully processed. I had told it too soon. The audience felt my discomfort, and it set off their own.

The experience taught me an important lesson about doing my own inner work on a story before sharing it with an audience. Most people are too polite to walk out when a story jars them. But a told story is not a book they can close or throw across the room. They are held captive.

Going public with pain

So it was with that painful lesson in mind that 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 her years of being sexually abused by her father. 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 there, 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 with her friends. She set the scene and began to spin a story of survival and triumph so magical I still get shivers when I think about it. She was no longer a victim. She carried no guilt. She was a strong, beautiful 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

Most of my own challenging experiences, and those of colleagues, have not had such straightforward causes and effects. A colleague was telling a story to a group of school children when one little girl burst into tears. The death of a parent in an old folktale sent the child 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. Her 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 teacher who called my friend 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 or written or told.

An opportunity to reflect

I remember telling a story to a group of American middle school students on a military base in Germany. It was clear they were on the edge of out-of-control when they walked in the room. With young people this age, a storyteller has less than five minutes to captivate or lose them. If they’re not captivated, they will make the next hour feel like a year, a very tortured, painful year.

So I told them the story of Tayzanne, a haunting story that never failed to calm the antsiest group. I did not tell it because I loved the story, though I did and still do. I wielded it like a club, hoping to bludgeon them into submission. [The whole episode can be read in “Bite till the blood runs”.

It worked. They were still and attentive and actually seemed sorry when the hour ended. I didn’t know until a year later how much the story had unsettled them. When I returned to the school, they wanted to hear the story again. It was the only story they wanted to hear. We spent the entire time exploring its mysteries together, examining their questions like precious jewels.

When our best efforts are rejected

For the most part, storytellers and writers are not offered the luxury of exploring together whatever it is that unsettles our listeners or readers. Critics can trash us. Audiences can turn away. They can send angry letters or make distressed phone calls. They do not owe us any deep, honest exploration of what it was that prompted their dismay.

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: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, 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 badly.”

When we release our story children, the products 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.”

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Virginia Sauve - January 19, 2011

Both the quote and your words that follow are most insightful and helpful. I have used a lot of stories in my classrooms through the years and in the pulpit now, and every once in awhile, there has an eruption, sometimes of tears and flight, sometimes of anger which have mystified me and left me somehow feeling guilty but for what, I didn’t know. This helps me to locate those scenarios and put them in some sort of perspective. Thank you!!

storyroute admin - January 19, 2011

When we tell or write a story, we can’t know what earthquakes it will set off in our listeners and readers. If we speak from a place of compassion and acceptance—of ourselves and others—we can at least hope that the earthquakes will help unstick something in the souls of those who hear us. We all have places in our heart that are easily wounded, at least until we resolve the issues that first opened the wounds.

Where the waters become murkier, the responsibility sharper, is when we tell stories of our own earthquakes. There’ve been times when I’ve wanted to rail publicly at someone who’s inflicted deep pain on me. With time, resolution, and forgiveness (of myself and them) I’ve been glad I didn’t. I can only take responsibility for myself and don’t always even understand my own motivations, let alone someone else’s.

Laura Packer - January 19, 2011

As a storyteller who routinely tells challenging stories, this is an excellent reminder to both work through the material thoroughly before I perform it and to remember that I can’t control the audience’s response. All I can do is treat all of us with compassion.

We need to tell and hear these kinds of stories, those that unsettle and disrupt, but we need to remember that we each experience them differently. Thank you for this post, it’s really well done.

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