Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Power of Story

Last night I was at home flipping through the TV channels. The two Law & Order shows that were on opposing channels were repeats. In between was PBS. As I have been prone to do I started to watch Bill Moyers Journal. The person being interviewed was Maxine Hong Kingston. Up until that point I had never heard of Kingston. I almost didn't "tune-in" when Moyers and Kingston started reading verse. There is something about people reading from books on TV that inexplicably I don't like.

However, I came back to the interview and began being caught up in what was said. Kingston is a writer. She has been using the power of story for nearly 15 years by leading writing-and-meditation workshops for (American) veterans and their families. Although not a veteran myself, I have as a reader of history a certain affinity for veterans. Personally I know so few, especially of the "greatest generation" -- those who fought in the Second World War -- that I could say I know none. Their faces are largely unknown. But, through story their sacrifice is familiar. The generations change, but the cost is usually the same. The dead experience peace. The living bear the wounds forever of what they experienced, and of what they did. And it has been through Kingston's workshops that some American veterans from the Vietnam era and including the present are finding a balm that is repairing their psyche.

I borrow an excerpt from Moyers' blog that gives reference to one veteran's writing that shows just how dramatic an exercise this can be:

Poem for Tet
by Ted Sexauer, medic, 173rd Airborne

Lang Cô village, Viet Nam
Lunar New Year, 31/1/1995

This is the poem
that will save my life
this the line that will cure me
this word, this, the word word the one

this breath the one I am.

(more from "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace")


In probably one of the most personally gripping parts of the interview Moyers asked his guest this next question:

BILL MOYERS: What is it about the power of story to change the human psyche? Why do stories do that?


MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I am trying to come up with a good answer. You know, I keep saying it's magic. Let's see whether I can say it in so many words. Story has a form that brings a certain order, you know, the shape of a finely made story has the same energy as sexual energy, or life energy. It's like the tide, you know, the tide that Sandy Scull wrote about. Of the ebbing and flowing of tide, and of storms. I think this goes through our bodies, it goes through our psyches. And the shape of story takes that same cyclical form. And we are in story, we are able to communicate with another being, another mind. And--


BILL MOYERS: Sometimes within ourselves, right?

MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, you communicate with yourself, yes.


BILL MOYERS: Well, some of these people-- you-- you-- when I read them, I think they're writing the story for themselves, although they wanted us to see. But it's primarily they're communicating some dead self, that is resurrected by this, what you say the force of sexual energy or psychic energy or the energy of the imagination?


MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: I know that they are writing for themselves but I always held it up as a standard of an ideal that the writer's job is to communicate. And, I tell them, "No diary writing", "No, private writing." These are public acts of communication. And you must tell the story so that you can give it to another person. That you can-- you-- and when you read it aloud, there's mouth to ear transmission. And, we are communicating. And, this way-- we make connections with others and, we also build the community around us. These soldiers come out of war alienated from everyone. They're alienated from their families, from our country, from themselves. And, this communication helps then build a community and a family around them.


(excerpted from the May 25, 2007 transcript. The emphasis shown here are mine - dd.)

As noted there are four concepts that stand out here. The first three:


  • story has energy
  • story has ability to heal
  • story needs to be told
Since from about Grade Two I have been a reader. It is my boast that by two grades later I was quite a proficient one. I could clean off several Hardy Boys stories by Franklin W. Dixon in a month. My taste for history began about then, and hasn't decreased an iota. I have tried writing, and admit that as communicator of non-fiction I am good (so I am told). The creative pen is a hard pen for me to hold and use.

But story is fascinating. I agree that it can transcend and heal. The Bible is one book that does just that. It can be read as story. Indeed it can be explored for the drama it holds as examined by Craig G. Bartholmew and Michael W. Goheen in The Drama of Scripture
: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. However, as a Christian it has more to it than just being a good read. Its a teaching tool. It's inspired writing. Inspire meaning "breathed in." The concept is that God breathed into Adam, and gave him life. That life still exists within the pages of the Bible today by the power of the Holy Spirit. Although, to me its a fascinating story, its not the main point I am trying to make here. It is only one example. I examine my bookshelf I see Carol Off's The Ghosts of Medak Pocket. Children coming through schools today are being taught about Canada's role in Afghanistan. Five or ten years ago few Canadians knew that their army had been engaged in a firefight in Croatia. As a nation we were stilled mired, still angry and embarrassed in what had occurred in Somalia to take any pride in our Armed Forces. Yet, this incident and the forces of history and politics that lead to that firefight needed to be told. Although I have a copy of Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire, I haven't read it (frankly I am a bit afraid of what i might read and what images will be left with me). Now that was a story that needed to be told and serve as a call to action against modern genocide.

I think, and this fourth concept is what I went to bed with last night, that for myself this forum I have created should be used to tell my autobiography. In fact, the title of this blog began as the introductory sentence to a testimony I gave when I joined Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Calgary. I am a prairie boy. I grew up primarily in the streets of Saskatoon. Before that I was a son of a farmer and a widower. Before that I was held by a woman who knew England and tasted the salt of the Atlantic as she came to Canada for the first time. I am a survivor. I am an optimist. I am a story. There will never be another one like me to pass through this period again.

Going back to Moyers interview with Maxine Hong Kingston:

MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: ... And we are in story, we are able to communicate with another being, another mind. And--


BILL MOYERS: Sometimes within ourselves, right?


MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes, you communicate with yourself, yes.


I have experienced trauma over the course of my life. Those who know me can be my witnesses. I am doing fine now, and I have no need to revisit what has occurred. I have also experienced some happy moments. I am sure if i were to compare the two they would balance out. If the current situation of being divorced and unable to have children continues what will be left of my story?



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