Last week, I made my first digital story. At the beginning of March, I entered into a new and exciting partnership with the Center for Digital Storytelling to create StoryLab (working title), an R&D wing embodying the power of story to help bring about a democratic and sustainable future.
To prepare for our partnership, I’d already interviewed staff members, read a mountain of history, and watched a remarkable range of first-person stories sculpted from individual narratives, photographs, letters, home movies, music, and other bits of visual and auditory information. But until now, I’d never had the experience of making a digital story myself.
Over the course of three busy and stimulating days, I met other workshop participants, read aloud the brief script I’d drafted a few days earlier, received others’ responses and suggestions, revised it and recorded my narration, uploaded photographs, home movie clips, and music to cobble together a rough version of my two-and-a-half-minute movie. With bottomless generosity, the individuals tasked with facilitating stories helped me to clarify my intentions and to execute the technical moves—transitions, special effects, titles—necessary to a finished product.
Six other participants were doing all the same things at the same time, generating at atmosphere thick with intentionality and concentration. From the first instant, I felt as if I’d been planted in a nursery full of seedpods bursting with the will to germinate.
In the last hour of the last day, when all the stories were screened and appreciated, I understood how entirely apt that feeling had been. We all have many stories to tell, of course. In fact, at least half the people present in this workshop were experienced digital storytellers, now learning how to help others tell their own stories. I considered many subjects before I hit on my choice for this first outing. But whether we are talking about someone like me, constructing a very first story, or someone devising the hundredth in a personal series, the same feelings are engaged: the intimacy and vulnerability of unearthing a seed from which some aspect of your character or passion has sprouted, of shining a light on your truth; the pleasure of telling in exactly your own way precisely what you wish to share; the pride and risk of self-revelation; the delight when what is so particular to oneself resonates with others.
I can think of a million situations, a zillion contexts, in which exactly this experience of germination could initialize a process of self-directed healing, or build connections between people, or aggregate what might otherwise be dismissed as “mere anecdote” into a powerfully coherent message that needs to be heard. And I’m not the only one who sees this potential: spend some time on the Center’s website to see for yourself.
When we open ourselves to see and be seen, something remarkable happens. Trivial likes and dislikes fall away. The surface of things ceases to matter so much, and whatever is most important—most true, most real, most beautiful—occupies center stage. Mostly, these days, I’m a bit of a workaholic: so many deadlines, so many reasons to complete just one more task before I rest. But finishing my digital story left me with such a strong sense of having arrived at a destination (and that delicious fatigue you feel when attaining the summit at the end of a long hike), I actually took a day off!
Here’s my story. I hope you enjoy it. (The photos of a dandelion puff and leaves are by Jennifer Williams; the lake and trees by Eugene Beckes.)
As you’ll hear, a pivotal piece of the story unfolds when I was eleven years old. That was also the age when boys and girls started noticing each other (probably boys and boys and girls and girls too, but that took place beyond my budding awareness). I’d just turned ten when my father died, so the whole prior year was swamped in misery: in my memory, it’s one long stretch of waiting to glimpse a little light beyond the darkness and chaos of my family. But by the time I’d turned eleven, my horizons had begun to expand beyond the little world at home.
One of my strongest memories of that age is dancing—or at least pressing my body close to a boy’s body and moving while music was playing—in someone’s darkened living-room, while that someone’s parents retreated to the another room to watch TV. In that memory, this song is playing, the original, by the Teddy Bears (Phil Spector, Marshall Leib, Annette Kleinbard, just to put the ethnic cherry on the doo-wop sundae). But really, doesn’t it have to be the version by Amy Winehouse, avatar of excessively sad little Jewish girls everywhere and in all times?
An outsider is uniquely privileged status. Clarity and vision substituted for conventional solidarity.
I can see it. And inverting that status via creativity. Of course.
And the sad, frightened child. It’s the last thing I would have imagined, until you said it. And then, of course.
That’s one reason I think it’s important to tell these stories—or rather two. First, I want to puncture the assumption that says that presence derives from privilege. Second, especially as I am so often speaking to students, I want to keep reinforcing this message (Sartre said it best): “Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you.”