Disrupting the patterns of our storytelling

A few weeks ago at a writing conference I went to a panel about writing the LGBTQ narrative.  While I am not LGBTQ myself, I wanted to know what the panelists felt about writing their stories, often for the first time, and often to audiences they fear do not understand them.  Those 90 minutes were some of the most useful and enlightening minutes of the conference for me.  My empathy and love for the LGBTQ story grew, but also, an empathy and gratitude for my own story felt very real.  In some ways, I felt like the five panelists could have been replaced by any particular group of people who are concerned with the idea of telling stories that are bursting at the seams of the box they have long been kept in. My Mormon self, my female self, my mothering self, connected with what they said.

Someone in the audience asked how to get more real and dynamic characters to be known in LGBTQ fiction and one panelist answered, “It’s not about telling stories that follow the same patterns, but it is more and more about the volume of stories written and consumed, both on the inside and the outside of the culture.”

That idea floored me, in part because of its simplicity.  Because I am Mormon, and my story is inextricably tied to my particular life experiences, I thought about what might happen if the volume of stories told in my Mormon culture was doubled, or tripled.  What would happen if every person in some way wrote out their story?  What if we consumed those stories in greater volume? What if our children grew up with a more diverse repertoire to draw from than the generation before?  Would it further expose the glorious idea that there is not black and white but a thousand vibrant colors available to be painted with as we map out our stories?

In my own experience, Mormons do excel at telling stories, we tell them in fast and testimony meetings, in anecdotes during lessons, we write them in our journals, but so often there is a nervousness that accompanies stories that divert from traditional patterns.  I do not want my children to be defined or confined by this underlying nervousness to conform to patterns.  I want creativity to be the original impetus for their spiritual lives.

I’ve been writing a book these past several months and I have had to look my own stories right in the eyes every time I sit down to work and ask them what they would have me say.  Often, I am surprised, even reticent to write what my stories seem to be asking of me, not because they are bad, or sad, but because they don’t follow the pattern I’ve long since believed they’ve needed to.  I’ve learned to trust them though, because they are wise, and I’ve spent too much time shushing them.

My final manuscript of this book is nearly done and the result is not what I could have predicted, and that, perhaps has been the most redemptive recognition of the sometimes brutal, sometimes thrilling job of telling of the stories we live. Through the writing of my story, I became more of an expert of my own life and thoughts than I was previous, and that confidence has not stayed contained in the words I have written for the book, but has carried into my lived experience as a spiritual being.  Telling my story has offered me peace. It has given me tangible hope that there is not one way to enact the tenets of Mormonism, but inexhaustible possibilities. My heart tells me God is proud of what I have done with the possibilities.

I want to say that the effort of sitting down to sort through my story has taught me that there is a serene and blessed land that allows me to live inside of my questions, and not against them.  Writing my story has allowed me a space in which I could disrupt beliefs and ideas that were stagnantly set in their ways.  It reminded me that my spirituality is a vibrant work that I get to be a part of.

For me, the only way to move forward is not to shy away from the things I feel cannot be talked about but to walk straight into them to see what happens.

Comments

  1. Ashmae, if you haven’t watched Sarah Polley’s “The Stories we Tell” that’s a must.

  2. Thank you! I haven’t watched it, but I will put it on my list for this week right now.

  3. just watched the trailer, looks great!

  4. Your comments about the redemption, the disruption, the surprise, Polley says very similar things in her discoveries through the medium of documentary storytelling and I’m guessing you’ll find it similar, and lovely.

  5. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for this, ashmae. And I second EmJen’s recommendation.

  6. I third it!

  7. Dodie wagner says:

    I enjoyed your article very much. I was reminded of how I love words and good writing. It made me want to sit down at my computer and tell my own stories. Thank you very much.

  8. Dodie, thank you for your nice comment and I truly do hope that you sit down this week and write some of your own story!

  9. Mary Bradford says:

    How will I get your book? I told some of my stories last year in “Mr. Mustard Plaster and Other Mormon Essays” (Kofford)

  10. This post is an answer to prayer. I’ve struggled for the past year wondering where I go from here. My own children are grown, and now most of the grandchildren I cared for while their moms worked are too. I think the effort of sitting down and sorting through my own story will help me get my bearings and decide what interests I want to pursue. I can’t thank you enough, ashmae.

  11. As a place to start – a few years ago, my (then) middle-school daughter and I were invited to join a regional storytelling group. I’m eternally grateful to the kind lady who extended the invitation, and then to the retired schoolteacher who so graciously acted as a mentor for my daughter. It’s been largely a group of schoolteachers and librarians, retired or working, and other people with a wealth of experiences and the ability to spin them into a compelling oral story. We’ve met people with whom we never would have crossed paths – a childhood Holocaust survivor, a radical Trotsky supporter who marched with the Communists in the 60s, ladies who were present when Billie Holliday performed at Carnegie Hall, Civil War historians, refugees from the Ukrainian genocide, you name it. We’ve shared mission stories, family history stories, folktales, personal stories, and these narratives have been just as accepted and valued as anything else. On top of that, my daughter has been hired several times to help entertain kids at Ren Fairs and Pirate festivals, and made enough money to cover school extracurricular dues. We hear from some of the best storytellers out there, and it sparks our desire to get better at the craft.

    These “guilds” exist all over the US. If you’re on the Jello Front, you might look into the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival and see if there are sponsoring groups that are eager for new blood. In other areas, do a few Google searches and see what turns up. They aren’t huge groups, but they are out there and they offer a perspective you and your kids won’t get from a screen.

  12. Mary, my book will be available through the Maxwell Institute in November! Glad to know about yours!

  13. Tina! I wish I could give you a hug and a cup of warm tea as you sit down to write! I promise it will be worth the effort to uncover so many layers through writing.

  14. Michael, I love this idea and hadn’t thought of getting my kids involved in this particular way. Anytime I’ve heard a story in person, it definitely is a distinct experience from so many other modes of communication. I am in northern California, so I will look around. I’ve actually thought of starting a small group even in my relief society to get people telling their stories. thank you!