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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Anecdote of a Story

by Paula Davidoff

All storytellers have a list of stories that we can rely on: stories that always elicit the proverbial “ha ha” or “aha,” stories that are good openers and closers, and stories that are just the right length for social occasions. We tell these stories several times a year to begin a workshop or assembly, or because they can be discussed in ways that fit most character development curriculum objectives, or because, after hearing them, people always have something to think and talk about.
I also bet that most storytellers have a few stories that they tell again and again because, for the teller, the story has never quite resolved itself. Because each telling opens new windows that shed different kinds of light on pieces of the tale. Because each time you tell it, you understand or remember something new about yourself and the world.
The Goose Girl at Gruchy, Jean-Francois Millet
I have a list of stories like that. Some of them have been in my repertoire for years; others are relatively new. Sometimes I’m surprised by a story that I thought I thoroughly understood and I add it to the list.
A couple of days ago, while reading through the notes I took during the past school year’s workshops and residencies, I came upon this sentence:
“How did The Goosegirl get to be the story of my life?”
I wrote it during an independent writing activity in a professional development workshop Julie Della Torre and I taught for sixth grade English LA teachers. (My thoughts about the answer to the question are also in the notebook, but they wouldn’t be interesting to anyone except, maybe, my imaginary therapist.) However, reading that entry made me think of some of the many times I’ve told the story, and gave me an idea for the first workshop of a summer program I’m co-teaching with my friend and fellow teaching artist, Carolyn Hunt.

For over ten years, Carolyn and I have co-taught Girls Surviving, a writing and theater program for teen girls that we created together. The program runs all year – one evening a week during the school year, and for an intensive four to six weeks in summer. In each of these ‘seasons,’ participants write, rehearse, and perform an original play about issues that affect their lives. We often open the first workshop of a season with storytelling. This summer, we opened with Grimms’ Goosegirl.
Because the program is community based and long term, many of the girls participate for five or six years. This summer, three of these ‘veteran’ troupe members, all going into their senior year of high school, are planning and directing workshop activities. Most of the other participants will be starting high school in September, so there is a big knowledge and maturity gap between the oldest and youngest members of the group. This was apparent on the first day when the older girls encouraged the younger ones to talk about themselves, their school experiences, and their thoughts about entering high school. The new girls were, understandably, shy, but they had also come in friend groups, clusters of two or three girls who sat together whispering and trying to sneak peeks at their phones during lulls in the workshop. Their focus and their conversation was all over the place. Until we placed The Goosegirl at the center of the discussion circle.
Almost immediately, the story began to organize both thought and activity. The thing that came together immediately, of course, was focus. This is something I’ve experienced, probably, thousands of times, but until I began reflecting on this workshop, I don’t think I have ever fully appreciated the power of having everyone in a group deeply centered in the same place, visualizing the (almost) same things.
After the story, conversation was more coherent. It became discussion. Which makes sense because everyone still had the story in mind and, although talk about story characters led to talk about personal experience, the story was still holding the group together.
What has surprised me, workshop by workshop, is how, although there have been few, if any, direct references to The Goosegirl after that first day, ideas from the story are reflected in the girls’ discussions and writing, and in the theme of the play they are constructing.  In an exercise in which we wrote dialogue between the inner and outer voices of a character, one writer had the inner voice say, “If my mother just saw the way I spoke to that kid, it would break her heart.” This nearly verbatim quote from the story was written days after I told it.

What happens when a heterogeneous group of people is given a story? Each individual enters the telling space with his or her own worries and joys, head filled with the events of the day behind or ahead, all very personal and specific to the self. Then, I think, the story speaks to each of those individuals in a way that connects some aspect of each personal experience to the characters and events in the story, and that, in turn, connects each person to the others in the group. In situations, like the Girls Surviving workshop, the talk that follows the story can make these connections obvious. But I think that even in situations where an audience hears the story and then gets up to go their separate ways, the connection still happens because the group had those moments of communal focus and, once the story enters the heart and mind, it stays there. Lying beneath the thoughts and events that push past it as people go through their day-to-day, the story helps give meaning and purpose to one’s inner and outer lives.
The effect that The Goosegirl is having on the work of my summer students brings to mind the Wallace Stevens poem, Anecdote of the Jar.*

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Placing the story in the workshop lent order to the ideas and experiences of the participants by offering a reference point for one’s own words and providing context for the words and actions of the others. It doesn’t change things in any obvious way. The big girls are still conscientiously teaching and the little ones, although they are getting better, still feel bereft without their phones. But the group is coalescing and all of the girls have begun to make art.

*This poem, from Stevens’s Harmonium, is in the public domain.