The Work, Part I

A few weeks ago, I was invited to facilitate a storytelling session at the opening of a racial equity gathering sponsored by a private charitable foundation. My assignment: begin the meeting with a story around equity or inequity, then lead the group in a storytelling exercise through which participants tell their own stories of equity or inequity.

Racial equity is a tricky one for me. I find it almost impossible to think or talk about race without thinking or talking about class. Living and working in El Paso, Oaxaca, and Atrisco has only heightened that sensitivity. So when I sat down to create a storytelling framework for a group of forty people who work in communities throughout New Mexico, I knew the process had to be simple and focused. I thought back to my early days as an organizational development consultant when I facilitated diversity and anti-racism trainings for nonprofit organizations, how the discussion could so easily fly off-track, how nervous I would get if the white guy in the room sat with his arms crossed over his chest. (I still get nervous thinking of that white guy with his arms crossed over his chest, but that’s a whole other post.) Equity is different; but just as with diversity and anti-racism, I have come to understand racial and economic equity by dwelling in the negative space, defining it more by what it isn’t than by what it is.

When I don’t know where to begin, I turn to my favorite teachers: books like Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir by Jane Taylor McDonnell, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and anything by Toni Morrison; and actual human beings like my writing coach, Demetria Martinez and Sue William Silverman, the Vermont College of Fine Arts writing mentor who, during my third semester in the Master of Fine Arts program, helped me complete Malinche’s Daughter and release it into the universe. Sue passed on many valuable bits of wisdom during my time at Vermont and beyond, but the lesson I find myself returning to over and over again is her article and lecture on the use of voice in creative nonfiction.

Though I lost my notes to Sue’s lecture in the fire, I still remember the spark that shot through me when I copied her words into my journal. “When you write memoir, voice is everything, and one voice is not enough.” She reimagines William Blake’s Song of Innocence and Song of Experience and employs them in the service of writing memoir, labeling them as the Voice of Innocence and the Voice of Experience.

The Song (or Voice) of Innocence relates the facts of the experience, the surface subject. It’s the voice that, in effect, says, “first this happened, then this happened, and then this happened.” It reveals the sequence of events, the particulars of your experience, whether in a one-page essay or a full-length book. It’s the innocent “you”—who you were when the events actually occurred. …

The Voice of Experience is then twined to this Voice of Innocence, thus adding a more mature author persona. This second narrator establishes the progression of thought in creative nonfiction, allowing the reader to know what the Voice of Innocence, what the facts, mean. By use of irony and metaphor, it interprets the surface subject. This voice, in effect, reflects back on the story, the past, and guides the reader through the maze of the experience.                     –from “Innocence & Experience: Voice in Creative Nonfiction”, Sue William Silverman, Brevity, Issue 19, Fall 2005

How might this information be of service to a group of non-writers—directors of nonprofit organizations, foundation staff, people who work in health care, education, sustainable economic development, and youth advocacy?

First I told a story.

Back Then

I am seven years old. We live in Deming on a dead end dirt road, next to a field of mesquite bushes and a tree that drops yellow balls the size of marbles that pop when I squeeze them. Ofelia Garcia is our neighbor. She speaks Spanish. Her kids are big, and they all have names like Arcelia, Veco, Alma, and Alonso. My name is Karen Michelle, but everyone calls me Michelle because my Grandma China can’t say Karen. Mrs. Garcia’s grandchildren sometimes visit from across town or across the border from Palomas. One of them, Abby Bear, visits the most, and she and I play together almost every day in the summer. She is older than I am. She speaks English to me and Spanish to her mom. My parents and grandparents speak Spanish to each other when they want to talk about us. I understand some of the words. Muchacha fregada. Déjala. My mom is home because it’s summer, and she’s a teacher. She’s standing in the kitchen when someone knocks on the front door in the living room. I answer. Two kids, a boy and a girl, say something to me in Spanish. “What?” I ask. They say it again. I don’t understand the words, so I say, “I can’t play with you. I don’t play with Mexicans.”

Then I gave a prompt.

Free Write Prompt #1: Back Then

Think back to a moment from your childhood or adolescence when you experienced or witnessed racial inequity.

Try to think of a specific moment, rather than a broad period of time. (e.g. Meeting my first-grade teacher vs. elementary school.)

Though the moment could be something shaped by larger historical events, try to focus on something that you either experienced or witnessed directly, something from your own home or community, rather than something on television or in a movie.

Write a simple description of that moment. Tell the story of what happened using dates, facts, and sensory details (what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched). Try to simply describe the event without interpreting it or trying to make meaning of it. If it helps, think of this as what Sue Silverman calls a “voice of innocence,” a child’s voice simply reporting what happened.

Try to write for the entire allotted time without lifting your pen and without making corrections to your work. This is a free-write. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Write in the language that will best help you tell this story. The important thing here is the process and the story. Simply enjoy the process of your pen moving across the page. This will help you get the story down.

And then forty non-writers—directors of nonprofit organizations, foundation staff, people who work in health care, education, sustainable economic development, and youth advocacy—wrote for ten minutes without stopping, without talking, without lifting their pens.

You try it. Then let’s meet here in two weeks* to see what happens next.

*Due to a major deadline, I will not be posting a blog entry next week. Please join me on Tuesday, August 6 for your regularly schedule “Vessel.”

Published in: on July 24, 2012 at 3:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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