This life of ours offers stories in every moment. Some lurk in the dark.
Some pounce as we turn a corner like cats on the hunt. Some sprinkle down as star dust, those stories that could only have happened like this, right now, at this moment – or would never have happened at all. Everything is material for a storyteller, inspiration is free and comes unencumbered. Or so I thought. Lately though, a new story has been emerging, the title of which is Whose Story is it Anyway?
I knew a woman who was as profound as she was bizarre. A survivor of the Holocaust, she lived life with such passion, such uniqueness, that I am forever altered for having known her. Like the phoenix, she rose from the ashes to live again. Her life was like a strange symphony of abstract music, and ocean, of courage, humour and profound joy. I wanted to immortalise her in a story, and so I wrote one. I changed her name, drew on her characteristics, but added a few of my own. I changed some of the facts, and wove her into a story about my desire to live a Big Life.
It seemed appropriate to send the story to her daughter, who is my dear friend. I thought it would please her. But she responded by sending me a letter, and with great sincerity she asked me not to tell the story in public. She said that although it may not be rational, she felt that her mother was her property, and she felt encroached by the idea of me telling a story about her.
Upon reading the letter many questions came to the surface for me. Whose story is it? Am I not writing about an experience that happened to me?
Surely, I felt, if I change the name and details and just draw on the essence of the character, she has no claim on the story. I resisted the implied censorship. When artists have been censored it has forebode grimly for society. Perhaps I am over sensitive. Do I really need to tell the story?
As a storyteller, I have a tendency to be very personal. I believe with passion, that if I speak from the heart, it will touch the hearts of others. And to speak from that place, I must tell of what I know. However, what right do I have to make those around me and dear to me expose themselves beyond their desire. The novelist Nora Ephron once said that her parents, both writers always told her that “everything is copy”. Do artists simply own what inspires them, regardless of the feelings of the other `characters’ in the story?
I do think that some things are sacred. That there is a danger in uttering the unutterable. That is something indigenous people understand profoundly.
I do not tell Aboriginal stories, because I can not be sure which ones can be told and which ones hold totems and symbols that belong to a tribe. I know that when someone dies in the Aboriginal culture, their name is never mentioned again. It disturbs the spirit.
On the other hand, story is not poetry. It often requires the specific to become universal.
“There was a woman who lived in a house three doors down. She used to hang up her clothes in the neatest parallel lines -when I was a kid, I would watch her to see if she used a ruler. She had a lot of bad luck that woman. Her husband was caught for armed robbery and was serving time in Long Bay. Her son was retarded and visited every weekend, and you could hear him making these awful howling noises at night. They were so scary, I had to cover my ears with my hands and push right under the covers, just to get to sleep. But every Wednesday, she hung up those clothes in the straightest lines you ever saw. She whistled while she did it. I liked just seeing them waving away. There was something good about it. It helped me breathe, if you know what I mean”
I did know such a woman. Maybe she will be the subject of a story. It may become a story about hardship and the human spirit. It might turn magical, and one day she will wake up to find the washing already waving on the line, all by itself. It may simply tell of the Wednesday there was no washing, and I go in to investigate what happened…. only to find….. who knows?
Stories are like that, we build on what we know and then let the story speak for itself. The detail is important. I want you to see her as I saw her.
Perhaps you know a woman like that. After all, nothing is really unique, and everything is too.
So the question remains, whose story is it anyway? As far as my friend is concerned, I decided to let it rest in the realm of mystery. I do not know what drives her, but I will honour her request and not tell the story. If she feels it is unutterable, then so be it. There will probably be other times when what I tell offends someone I know who thinks she or he sees themselves in a character. I am willing to risk that. And I suspect that the risk is balanced with the possibility that someone else may hear the story, and be set free by it.
In the end I know this. I owe it to my art to be true and courageous, and I owe it to my fellow man to be compassionate and reverant. May I find the wisdom to be both.
© 1999 – Donna Jacobs Sife, Storyteller.
“To speak is to sow, to listen is to reap.”
(published in Dec’99-Jan 2000 issue of Telling Tales).