Thursday, July 21, 2011

Telling My Stories: Leaving Frederick for Frankfurt

In an earlier blog entry, I wrote about telling stories and ended by saying that I would tell you my stories in future entries.

Easier said than done.

Where to begin? What story—or stories—should I tell? I originally thought that making a list of possible stories and analytically choosing the “best” one would enable me to start writing. Who else has noticed that being engaged in analytic, critical reasoning does NOT produce the state of mind that supports good storytelling?

In any case, creating a list and picking the best alternative didn’t work for me as I thought about but didn’t succeed at getting any writing done.

Yesterday, when I was walking with a friend, I began telling her about my storytelling quandary and then began to remember how I would get college freshmen to tell their stories when I taught composition at San Jose State University.

Their assignment was to write a personal narrative with a thesis statement that pointed out the significance of the story. To do that, I needed to model for them how to create a personal narrative.

As a teacher, I was on the spot. I hadn’t thought through what story I would tell, but I needed to come up with a story fast.

I was also teaching students to cluster--a technique developed by Gabriele Rico in her book, Writing the Natural Way.

The way to cluster is to begin by putting your subject in the middle of a piece of unlined paper—or a chalkboard if you’re the teacher in a classroom.

I thought about a nightmare about piano-playing that I’d had when I was about nine years old.


Then, when you cluster, ideas will come to you, and you jot them down wherever you want. The point is to be free as you write and not to constrict yourself to any linearity of thought.

I woke up in the middle of the night. I’d been hearing my father play the piano in my dream.


He was playing the music from The Bell Trio in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. I couldn’t get rid of the lyrics in my head—something about “Rend the air with warbling wild….”

I loved the piano. And we’d sold it.

I was in the middle of the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. Our family was on the U.S.S. Butner, a military ship that reeked of garlic.


We were moving from Frederick, Maryland, to Frankfurt, Germany.


I didn’t really know why I didn’t like living in Frederick—even as a small child. I wasn’t that athletic and sometimes it seemed like my older sister Ruth had more fun than I did. She liked running in the cow fields across the street whereas I was happier sitting around reading mythology books. One time my mother and I went to Baltimore, which was about an hour’s drive away, for a 24-hour getaway, and I decided that I loved cities.


Moving to Frankfurt seemed exciting—not because it was in Europe—but because it was a city.

But, would we get another piano?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In clustering, after you’ve written down your ideas, you connect them with lines to see their interrelationships and to help you deduce that often elusive thesis statement.



What was this cluster really about? Had I just described a childhood experience to the college freshman in my classroom? Or did this experience have greater meaning?

What the cluster said to me was that change—even when good—could be threatening or frightening. I was happy that I was moving to Frankfurt. My life—even as a nine year old—did get better. I didn’t have to deal with the cow fields anymore. But I was afraid, afraid that we’d never have a piano and that I wouldn’t hear my father play again. My fears, however, were unfounded. My father also had to have a piano, and he purchased one within a month of our arrival in Frankfurt.

Telling the piano story to the students also had a good outcome. I was teaching college freshman for the first time. After telling this story, I had felt pretty vulnerable, almost like I’d revealed too much about myself to my students. I didn’t know what to expect or what they’d think of me.

A week later, the students turned their “Personal Narrative,” 1000-word essays.

Some of their stories amazed me. Rather than having revealed too much in the piano story, I showed them how they could reveal more about themselves, and I made them feel like it was safe to do so.

Authenticity breeds authenticity.

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