Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Power of Story

Winter term for my Writing Your Life Story students is almost over but Spring is coming and we'll start in for another term before summer hits. Looking back over these weeks I have to say that the one session I taught this winter which ended up as the most helpful, for the most students, had to do with the power of story.

Our goal this winter has been to write one story about each of the following: our birth, earliest memories, elementary school memories and our high school years. That last area had to be my biggest hang up: Every time when it came time to write about my own high school years, I'd stall then quickly go on to a different segment of my life.

This year I wanted to begin in earnest. Where should I start? At the beginning of course. Wasn't that what I told my students?

I sat down at my computer and wrote out two factual paragraphs. I was telling very well but showing? And suddenly I remembered THE POWER OF STORY. Okay, where's the story?

The result: My High School Years Begin.

West Linn High 1954-1956

My world changed dramatically the fall I started high school at West Linn. Wilsonville was at the end of the district, a small town which pretty much consisted of a grade school, a tavern, Aden’s General Store and Post office, and a feed store. Most of the people who lived in the town commuted to Portland by car, a few rode the bus. Others worked in Lake Oswego, Tigard and other small towns that offered more job opportunity.

The eight grade elementary school had less than a hundred students altogether, my graduating class had only eight. Now we were in high school and we were told there were more than 120 freshman alone, perhaps more. Instead of being in the same classroom all day students were responsible to attend six different classes. My best friend, Barbara Workman, and I signed up for General Math, English, P.E., Science, Social Studies and Study Hall and chose to have identical schedules. We even shared the same locker and that’s where the trouble began.

No matter how hard we tried, we two freshman girls from the back roads of Wilsonville, couldn’t quite master the combination. We tried it: 37 R, 19 L, two twirls all the way around twice. The door was supposed to open at 39, wasn't it? Except it didn't. That first week we must have been late for every class although we did eventually make it to most of them. Neither of us could quite figure out what we did right when that gray metal door would finally decide to pop open. Sometimes kicking the door seemed to help, at least occasionally it did. But we could could never quite figure out the combination, not really.

One night my brother Lawrence got mad at me about the whole situation. “I could hear you and Barbara kicking and banging that door when I was at the other end of the hall today. I was so embarrassed.”

I felt heat rise up in my face. “It doesn’t want to open,” I said. “Sometimes it does but most of the time—“

“It’s stupid of you to hit it like that, too,” he said. “I can’t believe you’d do such a thing. What will people think? Everybody knows you’re my sister.”

That was just the problem; nobody knew who I was. I was invisible.

I stuck my nose in the air and glared at him. I didn’t tell him how much I hated that locker or that I felt a whole lot more embarrassed then he did about the whole thing. Nor did I tell him how sick to my stomach I felt every morning when we went down and then up the little hill after the bus made the last turn towards the high school. And what about the sea of strange faces as they surged past us in the hall and the elbows that pushed and crowded? To me, a quiet country girl, the noise they made as they clattered down the hall was unbearable.

Barbara and I finally went to the office. That very afternoon the maintenance man put in a brand new combination lock and wonder of wonders, it worked perfectly. First Right, then Left, two twirls all the way around twice and “bravo” the door popped open right at 39. What a lock! After that we never missed a class, at least not intentionally! We’d proved we could conquer the locker. Now we could settle down to life as Freshman in an alien world.

What new challenge would tomorrow bring?

Can you tell when I stopped telling and began showing? Notice I used fiction techniques to write what is actually known in the writing world as an anecdote and it is anecdotes which put power into writing. Personally I like to think of them as short stories which make pictures in the reader's mine, grab the heart and make them eager to read more. My anecdote/story actually begins in the fourth paragraph.

I hope you learn as much from this entry as I did writing it. There'll be more too, I want to tell about Miss Foote, my English teacher, who told me the good looking guy with the dark hair and big shoulders who sat across the aisle from me thought I was cool. I want to tell about writing my first thousand word essay and earning an A+. And what about that cold winter day Barbara and I hiked across the West Linn Oregon City bridge to find a used couch for an upcoming play?

Those memories are still there just waiting to be captured on paper. It's like I tell my students: the more you write, the more you remember. And everybody loves a story!


Beth Niquette said...

Wow, Mumsie--I'm learning a LOT about you I never knew before. I really enjoyed your story, and I'm looking forward to reading a lot more. (Grin) I believe in the power of Story!

Catherine said...

I look forward to reading more about Your Story!