Write From the Heart: Finding Our Own Best Stories
Please note: The following remarks are adapted from a talk delivered at Kehilath Israel Synagogue, Overland Park, KS, on November 20, 1999, as part of Jewish Book Month activities.
According to Jewish folktale, by way of the storyteller in my play The Wise Men of Chelm, "When the earth was created, and the time came to fill it with people, two angels were chosen and each was given a sack: one filled with wise souls and the other with foolish souls. The idea was to sprinkle wise and foolish souls evenly over the earth, but oops, whoops! The angel carrying the sack of foolish souls tripped over a mountain peak and the entire sack of fools spilled out - nitwits, noodlebrains, and pudding-heads tumbled from the heavens. Schlemiels, schlimazels, and dumkops of every kind landed in one spot - one tiny Shtetl -one ridiculous speck of a town made up entirely of fools -Chelm!"
Now, why, do you suppose, would such a dreadful mistake be allowed to occur - at the very time, we're told, when order was being created out of chaos?
There is also a traditional Jewish saying that human beings were created because God loves stories. Certainly, among all the creatures on this earth, we're the only ones who can tell them, and that must mean something - to each of us personally, to all of us as a species, and in the great scheme of things.
Indeed, stories are a survival mechanism, an important one: Stories are the way we make sense of our lives, and when even that proves impossible, stories allow us to make nonsense, so at least we can laugh at ourselves and our predicament. Fool tales are a must, then, a particular favorite, and there are plenty of them. Stories of the wise men of Chelm date back to at least the 16" Century, and fool tales are found in countless other cultures as well. They bring with them two gifts essential to our survival - story and laughter. Here's a classroom scene in Chelm, as recreated in my play; Reb Pinchas is speaking to the schoolboys Berel and Zalmen.
PINCHAS: Very well, my learned scholars of Chelm, let us review our lessons so far. Tell me this, if you can - Why are summer days long and winter days short? (ZALMAN and BEREL, both wave their hands high, eager to respond. PINCHAS chooses ZALMAN.) Yes, Zalman, you may speak.
ZALMAN: Thank you , beloved Rebbe. In the summer, the days are long because it is hot, and, as everyone knows, the heat causes things to expand. In winter, the days are short because the cold causes them to contract.
PINCHAS: Precisely, my dear Zalman, my star pupil! I am very pleased, very pleased indeed. And now, learned scholars, answer me this, if you will: If the distance from Chelm to Warsaw is four miles, what is the distance from Warsaw back to Chelm? (Again, BOTH students wave eagerly, and PINCHAS, after a moment's consideration chooses ZALMAN.) Yes, Zalman, I would like to hear from you this time.
ZALMAN: Thank you, beloved Rebbe. If the distance from Chelm to Warsaw is four miles, the distance from back to Chelm is eight miles.
PINCHAS: And why is that?
ZALMAN: For the answer to this question, we look to our calendar. There we discover that the distance from Chanukah in the winter to Pesach in the spring is four months, while the distance from Pesach back to Chanukah is eight months.
PINCHAS: Excellent reasoning, Zalman! It would not hurt you, Berel, to pay closer attention to this brilliant thinker. I don't see that your responses come anywhere close to his! I'll give you one more chance. Very well, learned scholars of Chelm, explain to me, please, which is more important, the sun or the moon. (The same eager handwaving as before, followed by a look of exasperation from BEREL as PINCFIAS choose ZALMAN again!) Zalman! What is it that you have to say on this subject?
ZALMAN: Thank you, beloved Rebbe. The moon is more important than the sun, without a doubt.
ZALMAN: Because the moon shines at night, needed. The sun shines only during the day, when there is already plenty of light.
PINCHAS: Splendid, Zalmen! Oh, how I wish all of my students could shine as brightly as this one fine diamond of a boy. (He pinches ZALMAN'S cheek in delight. ZALMAN struggles to keep smiling through the pain, to BEREL's extreme satisfaction.)
Although I am Jewish, I did not grow up with the wonderful tales of Chelm. I discovered them as an adult, while teaching young people at Temple Israel in Springfield. I didn't grow up with these or any other stories because my parents and grandparents were not storytellers. It took me a while to realize what I was missing, but now and forever more I grieve for the stories that died with them - tales of Chelm certainly, and maybe Russian and Polish folktales as well, but also tales of life in the old country, of leaving everything familiar and starting over in a new land, of being the children of immigrants, of living through two world wars and the Great Depression, of relatives lost in the Holocaust.
By the time I got old enough to ask the right questions, there was no one left who remembered the answers.
And so, I've made a personal mission of encouraging people to tell their own stories, the stories that will die with each of us if we fail to pass them on. Not all of these stories will be publishable; many of them will be of interest only to the writer - and maybe a relative or two, or possibly to someone not yet even born. When Anne Frank wrote her diary, did she have any idea of the impact it would have on the world? None at all.
But impact on the world is not the point. The point is that the stories we tell define us: as individuals and as members of society. Professor Charles Estus, a recent convocation speaker at Drury University, has made a study of the importance of stories. He warned us, during his talk at Drury, that if we don't tell our own stories, they will either never be told or others will tell them for us, defining us in their terms, and we may not like what they choose to say - or not say. This, he pointed out, has long been true for women, the poor, and minorities in our society. Until very recently, American history remained exclusively "his story," and "he" was white and well-to-do.
Dr. Estus' words brought into focus for me something I'd experienced only days before hearing him speak. At Drury, I participate in STEP-UP, a program sponsored by the 3M Corporation. Each Tuesday afternoon, for four or five weeks per group, at-risk students from neighboring schools arrive on campus for sessions of creative writing and creative dramatics. As soon as I announced to one group of fourth and fifth graders that we were going to be writing, a boy on the first row shouted out, "I can't write!"
That was the first story Kevin told: He defined himself as a non-writer.
Fortunately, the program is set up so that there's a Drury student for every two or three schoolchildren, so I was able to tell Kevin, "No problem. Just grab yourself a secretary, and he or she will write down whatever you dictate."
Kevin went on to dictate a story, and when the time came to share, he proudly stood beside his Drury student, who read the piece to the rest of the group for him. And what Kevin had dictated was a description of how he and a friend had learned to build wooden club houses, and how they gathered free materials, and worked together on several of them.
I was amazed! Who, as a child, hasn't dreamed of a real, life-sized clubhouse - and here was someone who knew how to build them and had done it, more than once!
Now, Kevin had redefined himself: He was an accomplished builder of clubhouses.
On our last day with this group, parents and teachers came to see the children read and perform their work. Afterward, one of the teachers came up beside me, nodded toward Kevin and whispered, "He's in a B.D. class, you know."
That was the story she had to tell about Kevin, her way of defining him - a child with behavioral disorders. Fortunately, Kevin had gotten to me first with his story, and I will remember him as a builder of clubhouses.
Our stories define us and help us to define our place in society and our experience of the world.
Dr. Estus also pointed out that we need to face, honestly and courageously, our negative stories as well as our triumphant ones. Either we take full ownership of our problems, shortcomings, and mistakes, or others will, to our regret.
I have another play called The Wolf and its Shadows that compares the stories people tell about wolves with the reality of the wolf's existence. The most scandalous of our politicians cannot hold a candle to the wolf for bad PR. But wolves can't define themselves by telling their own stories, and people can.
Here's an example of taking control of the negative aspects of our lives through our stories, told by a boy who participated in a creative writing program at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp founded by Paul Newman for children with life-threatening illnesses. Adam Jed was in kindergarten when he contracted an extremely rare disease that affected his circulation and required the amputation of both of his legs just below the knee. He was eight years old when he participated in the creative writing project-not mine, although I later did volunteer at the camp. This project was run by counselors Larry Berger and Dahlia Lithwick and resulted in a book called 1 Will Sing Life: Voices from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which I then received permission to adapt for the stage. The book is now out of print, but the play has just come into print, so the children involved continue to sing life in a new format.
This is the slightly abridged version of Adam's story as it appears in my script:
ADAM: "A Leg with an Ego," by Adam Jed. I stay at home because I am feeling sick, but my prosthetic legs decide to go to school without me. (CAMPERS and COUNSELORS act out the story, including the legs, as ADAM tells it.) Wearing black leather shoes and tannish pants, they walk through my school, go to my desk, sit down, and try to hold a pen with their feet. It doesn't work and the paper falls off the desk. My whole class walks in and they all stare at the prosthetics. My teacher, Ms. Chapman, walks in, doesn't believe it, and collapses on the ground. All the kids gather around her like a football team huddling and then one of the kids runs down to tell our principal, Mrs. Robinson.
MRS. ROBINSON: Recess for the rest of the day!
ADAM: During recess my prosthetics play kickball. The person who's in charge of recess, Mrs. Rosenberg, comes by the kickball field, looks at the person who is kicking, and realizes
MRS. ROSENBERG: It's just a pair of legs!
ADAM: She starts to run away, but she's so dizzy that she hits her face right into a fence - and gets knocked out. The students are sent home for the day because the teachers all fainted and there was no one to watch the kids at recess. So the legs got on the bus and put down their bookbag, but one of the kids tells the bus driver
KID: The prosthetics don't have a seat belt on!
ADAM: She walks back, looks at the legs, and faints. So now there's no one to drive the kids home and they have to go to Mrs. Robinson. She calls our parents, but when my mom hears that my legs are at school without me, she faints. My prosthetics walk home, go into the house, up the stairs, and sit down on my bed. When I see them, I faint. So the legs drive me to the hospital. One leg pushes the pedal; the other leg turns the steering wheel. There's a whole hospital emergency room filled with all the people who have fainted. Later, the prosthetics come in to visit me. They see me walking around on another pair of prosthetics. They think that I'm impersonating them and they get confused - and faint.
"No fear. No hiding," Adam is telling us. "No revulsion. No pity. These are my legs, and I'll be the one to tell my story, my way."
You'll be happy to learn that Adam is in college now, having scored perfect 800s on his SATs.
I've done several theater pieces like I Will Sing Life, weaving together life stories that defined the individuals involved, their place in society, and their experience of the world. One was based on interviews college students had done with people living in a shelter for the homeless. Another, called Project Oregon, was a commission form the Children's Educational Theatre of Salem. I'd like to share some of that quite amazing and gratifying experience with you.
Project Oregon required three trips out West: On the first, I conducted an all-day writing workshop with fifteen middle school students and six elders from a couple of retirement villages in the area. They all wrote poems and stories from their Oregon experiences, and they interviewed one another about growing up in Oregon. They also wrote monologues from those interviews, as if they had become the person they had interviewed.
At the beginning of that first session, I noticed one of the middle schoolers, Ben, sitting as far back as he could, pressed against the chalkboard, eyeing me suspiciously and whispering with his friend, Rhoie, who wore a black trench coat and a ski cap pulled down to her eyebrows all day long, although it was not cold in that room.
I was concerned about Ben's attitude and Rhoie's fashion statement, but went on about my business, and the next time I noticed the two of them, they were up front, leaning forward, eyes wide, as they listened to an animated older woman they had never met before in their lives regale them with her childhood memories. Seeing groups of two and three teenagers interacting with elders that way, all around the room, was, to me, like visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time: wonderful, and I'd certainly never seen anything quite like it before. Segregation by age is an unfortunate fact in our society.
At the end of the day, Ben marched up to me, parents in tow, and told me he had known his great-grandmother, who also grew up in Oregon, and that she had written down her life story. Would I like to see a copy?
You bet I would, I told him, and he promised to mail it to me.
After that first workshop, I took all of the day's writing back to Springfield with me, while the young people and elders went out into their Salem community and interviewed more elders. All of that material was also mailed to me, and my job was to shape everything into a 45-minute script, which I did.
On my second trip out, the same young people and elders gathered to read the script out loud for the first time, and they were as delighted to find bits and pieces of their own stories and poems woven into it as I was delighted to witness once again generations enjoying themselves by sharing their stories - and eating lots of pizza - together.
On the third trip, I saw the opening performance of the play. The elders were in the audience with me, but their recorded voices were used throughout the piece to narrate some of the action onstage. It was a grand night for all of us.
I'll share just two sections of that script with you: a poem by Rhoie and a story from Ben's great-grandmother:
"My Beach House"
Cold and damp
in the evening, after dinner,
wind blowing the trees,
rain pounding o the window,
the faint sound of thunder,
flashes of light in the starry yet
cloudy sky, dark shadows moving
across the yard. The waves seem to take
beach and animals to their watery graves.
Sitting there by the window
all alone and staring out
at the furious storm
makes me feel safe.
And from Ben's great-grand mother, another look at boys an clubhouses, form the far end of the 20t'' Century: "My brother and his friends would make secret club houses, where the boys excluded us girls. The last time Agnes was here we teased Seth `til he got mad Then we ran to the two holer an locked the door. Seth threw rocks at the door, but we just laughed an said, `Sticks and stones may break our bones, but not when we hide in the toilet."
Not your stereotypical impression of a great-grandmother!
Another of my story-to-stage adventures, From Memory to Hope, celebrated the 100th anniversary of Temple Israel in Springfield and was based on interviews by a professional folklorist with ten of the oldest members of the congregation. It helped acquaint me with some of the stories my own family never passed on: stories of the Old Country and of escape and resettling in the new country.
This piece was performed as readers' theatre, scripts in hand, by five members of the congregation. I'll end with three short selections, and a reminder that these storytellers were not professional writers, but your neighbors, your relatives everyday people with stories to tell - just like you.
First, from a section about the Old Country:
FIRST READER: I remember when I was a kid - right after the revolution -1918 - we had a bunch of Cossacks come through our little town. Of course, there was a bunch of horses; we went to see what was going on. One of them just - I was standing there - and he just took his whip an hit me right across my face. For no reason in the world.
SECOND READER: My mother told us about how they ran, and the soldiers would come in and stab beds. And Fanella's mother, she hid underneath the bed, and they didn't get her.
THIRD READER: We went hungry. We went hungry many times.
FOURTH READER: He always said he ate penicillin before it was even popular - because it was molded bread.
FIFTH READER: It got so bad - four boys - we had to go eat at different homes - had one meal a day. Sometimes people used to give us a little bit of buttermilk. We used to go out to the field, where they harvested potatoes, and whatever they didn't get, they let us go out there and dig.
SECOND READER: We used to get clothing from - people used to give us - who cares what size it is as long as it's something to cover our feet. Oh, it wasn't pleasant, I grant you. I was tickled to death to get out of there.
Next, from the section about escape:
THIRD READER: My father was being trained to be a rabbi. And at the age of thirteen, he would have been taken by the Cossacks and made to do menial labor for the Russian army. So his parents hid him in the false bottom of a hay wagon and sent him across.
FOURTH READER: We had a friend who had a neighbor whose son deserted the Russian army. And he wanted to get over to Poland, because at that time, if you could get over to Poland, you were all right. So he had a sled and he made a false bottom; then on top of that were my two brothers, my sister, and the driver. My oldest brother and myself and my mother held onto the sled - a horse pulled it - and we walked all night long to cross the border. All night - through snow - and ice - and water. This was in February, you know.
And finally, from a section on the new country:
FIFTH READER: I loved to hear my father tell the story of how they arrived at Ellis Island on either the third or the fourth of July. Dad loved history, and so he knew about the Fourth of July. They landed, and that evening, they were on Ellis Island, and here came all these fireworks. And this other guy who came over asked, "What's that all about?" "Oh," Dad said, "it's such a great country that whenever another boatload of immigrants come, they celebrate!" And this guy believed him. Dad said he never had the heart to tell him he was kidding, and he wondered how many years it took before he found out.
Our stories define us, our place in society, and our experience of the world. They help us to reach within and without - across rooms, across generations, across oceans and years.
I cannot help but wonder: If people were created because God loves stories, might not the reverse also be true - that the great gift of story was created because God is rather fond of us as well?
Sandy Asher is a writer-in-residence at Drury University, the author of many books and plays for young people, and the editor of two anthologies: But That's Another Story (Walker) and With All My Heart, With All My Mind: Thirteen Stories about Growing up Jewish (Simon and Schuster), which won the 1999 National Jewish Book Award for Children's Literature, and was named to the ABA Pick of the Lists.
Asher and her fellow author, David Harrison, have launched an new interactive website, America Writes for Kids, and they welcome YA reviews from young readers and adults. Visit the site at: http://usaplays4kids.cjb.net. If you are interested in plays for young audiences she encourages you to visit USA Plays for Kids at: http://usaplays4kids.cjb.net. Webpage: www.redrival.com/mowrites4kids/asher.
Ashen Sandra Fenichel. The Wise Men of Chelm. Woodstock, IL: Dramatic Publishing Co., 1992.
Ashen Sandra Fenichel. The Wolf and its Shadows. New Orleans: Anchorage Press, 2000.
Ashen Sandra Fenichel. I Will Sing Life: Voices from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Woodstock, IL: Dramatic Publishing Company, 2000.
Ashen Sandra Fenichel. Project Oregon and From Memory to Hope are unpublished, site-specific works.
Bergen Larry and Dahlia Lithwick, eds. I Will Sing Life: Voices from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.
Reference Citation: Asher, Sandy. (2000) "Write From the Heart: Finding Our Own Best Stories." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 1, p. 16-19.