Monday, November 09, 2009

The Power of Story



I wish I'd thought to post about this last week thereby helping to spread the word but instead I'm posting in the afterglow of an event already passed. I just finished participating in the latest Oprah Book Club web event. This time for Uwem Akpan's story collection Say You're One of Them. This time CNN's Anderson Cooper was participating and CNN.com was hosting it via CNN Live. Facebook got in on the act too putting up a feed so anyone with a Facebook account could make a status report directly from the same screen you were watching the event on. As always Skype was involved but I don't have that technology on my laptop. Not that I can really imagine myself Skyping in on a whim from this room. :)

It took most of my reserve of social courage to make that one entry in my Facebook feed at the beginning. Some times I think the real reason I'm not published myself by now (except on my web site) is due to self-sabotaging out of fear of having to make public appearances on behalf of my stories.

But I digress. I apologize. But it may happen again before I'm done. I have to just get this written at speed, going wherever my thoughts go because I'm a bit punch-drunk from sleep deprivation, having spent all last night trying to finish or reach good stopping places in several library books that had to leave when my husband left for work if I did not want to walk the mile to the library and back to make sure they were in the slot before 10. Then after the books were wrested from my grasp at eight, I spent several hours trying to close the gaping abyss between my current NaNo word count and where it should be by day 9. I made over 1700 by 2pm at which point I succumbed to the temptation to turn on the TV for Gilmore Girls.

For those in the know, it was the episode of Luke's sister's wedding near the ending of season 4. Need I say more? Sure, I've seen it at least twice and I still have my niece's DVDs but it was HARD to not turn it on knowing it was on right that moment. Besides if I got the disk out later I'd probably watch four episodes instead of just one. I chalked it up to research on story. :) GG is one of the best done TV drama/comedy ever and the things a storyteller in training can learn from watching repeatedly are innumerable.

So GG was followed by Dr. Phil which I knew was continued from last Monday. And then of course Oprah--the big Oprah/Ellen O cover reveal. OMG I want a copy of that magazine! Besides all the other great things about it, it has my name writ in huge red script across the middle!! Yeah I know it's not really my name when it's used that way.

It wasn't until Oprah was over that I opened my PDF of the first story in the book "Ex-mas Feast", a free download provided when I reserved my spot on the web event over a week ago. I have been in queue for a library copy since the day Oprah announced the selection and I just reached next in line today which means it'll be another three weeks or more before I get my turn unless whoever has it now turns it in early.

Me being the great procrastinator in all things had that story on my lap top since the day before Halloween but didn't open it until an hour before the web event was to start. It was thirty pages and I finished it with seconds to spare--or so I thought at first before I realized that the timer on the event window had frozen at 7:34 and my watch, which is five minutes fast said 7 after 6. By the time I had tried refresh twice, closed the window and signed back in and this time accept the offer of a download/install to make a faster and smoother connection, the event was underway. I had missed at least five minutes.

So I'm probably going to go watch it over again on Oprah.com tomorrow. I could also download a podcast on itunes but I don't know if I've got enough room left on my hard drive for a 90 minute video.

Below are Oprah's video logs reacting to four of the five stories in the book. The first one had the embed disabled and there wasn't one available for the fifth at all. They are worth watching to get an idea of the powerful impact these stories can have on a reader. I can't wait to read the rest now. She is careful to share only enough of the story itself to make it a teaser and not a spoiler for those who haven't read them yet. Which is good because it appears all five have endings like the first that Oprah says make her gasp.

Oprah reacts to the first story "Ex-mas Feast"

A homeless family in Nairobi is supported by the teen-aged daughter's prostitution as seen through the eyes of her eight year old brother.



Oprah reacts to the second story, "Fattening for Gabon" In which a family member is sold into prostitution. Different family, different African country. Yet again a child's POV as are all five.



Oprah reacts to the third story, "What Language is That?" A meditation on the communication between friends when verbal means are denied them.



Oprah reacts to the fourth story, "Luxurious Hearses", A Muslim boy travels incognito on a bus full of Christians who'd likely be unfriendly if not hostile if they knew.

The fifth story takes place during the Rwandan genocide as seen through the eyes of a teen.

What I really wish I could have posted with this was a few excerpts of the web event itself. Especially some of the Skype video of the young man who was a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, having been about the same age as the teen in the story at the time. As he shared his story and how he's coping fifteen years later and how encountering this Akpan's story at this time was such a boon. I began weeping and couldn't stop. He was still talking when CNN cut away for the next scheduled thing. I'm hoping the Oprah video tomorrow will not.

While I was sitting here in this tiny room in a trailer house in a tiny town in rural Oregon USA, listening to that young man bare his heart and soul for the tens of thousands watching from around the globe, and feeling my heart open to his, I was just overcome by the power that stories have to connect peoples hearts and then to combine that with the power of the technology to make possible for the potential of thousands of hearts around the globe to be opening under the impact of the same story in the same moment. I was just awestruck by it. It just really once again confirms for me what I have sensed in an inarticulate fashion, that story is the key to healing so many of our ills. From the stories we tell ourselves about our selves, about our family, about our neighbors, about our tribe/nation, about our religious community, about our divinities, about our universe and what it means to be alive, to the stories we share between cultures, between friends, between enemies, between our past and our future.

But stories have as much power to harm and poison as they do to heal. That's why it matters what stories we tell, and to whom and why.

When I first started thinking this way about story, I pooh-poohed my self, saying, well of course you're going to be seeing story everywhere you look and giving it credit when it's probably absurd to do so because you've not pulled your head out of one story or another since you were four years old long enough to check out other options, to see if there is anything else in the world worth waking up for each day. Biased a bit , you think?

But then something like this web event happens, or the day of the read-a-thon last month and I'm astonished by the power of the evidence to support my bias.

0 tell me a story:

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