When I was a kid, I used to tell people that I could make a story out of anything. And I could. In these stories, I didn’t imagine new worlds. Instead, I imagined (or uncovered) hidden connections between ideas, events and experiences. I liked taking seemingly disparate things and finding ways to bring them together to create new meanings. I wasn’t your typical storyteller. Not like my sister, MLP, who crafted brilliant tales about the pen and pencil wars or alien spaceships that looked like flying pizzas (with shooting anchovies!). In fact, I didn’t write many of my stories down. Is that why I don’t remember them? I crafted stories while engaged in intense conversations.
Even though I had proudly declared my ability to tell stories as a kid, I didn’t describe myself as a storyteller. In fact, in my statement of purpose for graduate school applications, I rejected the label. Responding to Martin Marty’s (a religion scholar and my dad’s Ph.D advisor at the University of Chicago) claim in a brief essay that his tombstone would say, “He told stories,” I wrote that mine might say this instead: “She had great conversations.”
I didn’t like the model of storytelling because it felt too much like a monologue, with one person just “reporting” their story to passive, listening others. This rejection of stories, especially “narratives,” continued into my Ph.D program. I recall being very skeptical of narrative theory in one of my favorite classes at Emory, Narrative and Female Selfhoods. Why, I wondered, in light of all the damage that Master Narratives and neat and coherent stories have done by flattening out and simplifying our experiences, would we want to tell stories?
At some point after that class, I think it might have been around the time I read Paul Eakin’s How our Lives Become Stories or maybe Dorothy Alison’s Two or Three Things I Know For Sure… or Trinh T. Minh-ha’s “Grandma’s Stories,” I started to rethink my reservations about storytelling and being a storyteller.
The first time I claimed the identity storyteller was in the second farm film that I created in 2002. Entitled Farm Film, Part 2: The Puotinen Women, this digital video was about the storytelling women in the Puotinen family. In the opening of the video, I said:
Something important that I’ve realized in the last couple of years is the power of the Puotinen women in their storytelling. It’s been something very profound to understand that these stories that mean so much to our family have really been passed on, in a variety of different ways by the women, the Puotinen women, particularly my grandmother Ines and my mother Judy.
At the end of the video, after weaving together important stories from their experiences on our family farm with mine, I drew upon the brilliant words of Trinh T. Minh-ha to claim my role as the next storyteller:
Tell me and let me tell my hearers what I have heard from you who heard it from your mother and your grandmother.
Producing that video was a powerful experience for me. It was so fun to craft new stories (or new takes on old stories) through the editing process. I had visions of completing a third video about the Puotinen men. But, there was no time. My son Fletcher was born, just days after we (my husband Scott and I) finished editing the video and only hours after we first screened it at a conference. And I had a dissertation to write. Later, after our beloved farm was sold and my mom, to whom the second farm film was dedicated, got sick and died, I didn’t want to make another video. I wondered if the subjects of my videos were cursed, doomed to die or be gone forever if I made videos about them.
While I didn’t have time or a desire to continue telling stories about the Puotinen family through video, I did continue thinking about the value of storytelling. In the second chapter of my dissertation, I wrote about the storyteller as one of three important role models for feminists:
…the storyteller trickster weaves words together—in oral or written form—to create meaningful narratives outside and beyond the system. Her goal is not only to critically challenge the hegemony, but also to ensure that the stories (the traditions, the histories, the people) of her communities do not get lost, forgotten or destroyed. In creating and sharing her stories, the trickster storyteller serves three important functions. First, she is a truth teller who bears witness to the stories of her people/her allies/her communities/herself and testifies to others about those stories. Second, she is a conjurer who enthralls her audiences with her words, drawing them in so that they feel like they are a part of the story. And third, she is visionary who uses her stories to create new meanings and imagine new possibilities for herself, her communities and her audience.
It’s fascinating and strange and curious to revisit these words that I wrote, way back in early 2004, and see how important they still are to me and my vision of how-to-be in the world. After writing my dissertation and then getting a teaching job at the University, I sometimes thought about storytelling. And I occasionally taught about it. But, I focused much more of my research and writing energy on another one of the role models that I wrote about in that second chapter of my dissertation: the troublemaker.
It wasn’t until my appointment at the University ended and I stopped teaching (and being an academic) that I returned to storytelling. My first project: a digital story about my first grade report card. Unlike the farm films, where Scott shot most of the footage and did the technical editing, Progress Report: An Undisciplined Account was produced completely by me (well, with the help of some of his music). Since finishing that first digital story, in March 2012, I’ve created 50 more, including a series of stories about my dad’s farm stories. Admittedly, around half of my stories are minute-long fragments, part of two larger projects: Digital Moments and Love in Fragments.
In this account, I trace the history of some of my storytelling practices. What I don’t mention is how useful my storytelling skills, especially my ability to connect seemingly unconnected ideas, were in the classroom. I loved taking students’ random comments at the beginning of class and connecting them to what we were reading or discussing that day. I also don’t discuss how my role as storyteller, especially with my digital videos, seems to come into conflict with my role as academic (and serious scholar). Academic methods, especially those that focus on critically dissecting arguments, discourage me from creatively imaging new worlds and ways of being.
Chapter 2 from my dissertation
Even as I’m beginning to take on the role of storyteller, I’m still skeptical, and a little critical, of the identity, Storyteller. My skepticism has much to do with the power of stories to manipulate, distort and flatten out or erase the complexities of our lives. On my blog, I’ve recently been writing about the dangers of the single story and the trouble with coherent, unified narratives.
In my hesitation to claim the role of storyteller, I’ve tentatively decided to call my various descriptions of my intellectual life accounts, not stories. Will I ever fully embrace the role of the Storyteller? Probably not. As with most identities that I uneasily inhabit, I’ll enjoy remaining just on the edge, telling stories that attempt to trouble and unsettle our inclination for easy, romanticized tales. Like this one:
I want to craft and share stories that reflect a more troubling understanding of our trips to the UP, that convey the joy and difficulties, our fulfillment and exhaustion.
I like messy stories; stories that don’t always erase our conflicts, that allow us to put our sometimes contradictory experiences beside each other.