By Jay O'Callahan
Reprinted from Storytelling Magazine, May/June 2004
As a boy, I made up stories for my little brother and sister. We'd be in the back seat of our old Dodge headed to Maine or Cape Cod. I was fourteen, Chris was three, and my sister, Mickey, four. Inevitably I'd see a small palm held out for me to examine. I'd see a line in Mickey's hand that might look like a wire. "Once long ago, Mickey was in a circus in a small town in Turkey. She was walking along the high wire when the lions got loose. . ." I 'd change the story depending on her expressions. I made up hundreds, maybe thousands of hand stories. But, they were adventures, never personal stories.
When my own two children came along, I'd read them Richard Scary, folk tales, and poems. I especially liked The Gingerbread Man. I loved the rhythm of:
Run, run as fast as you can
You can't catch me
I'm the Gingerbread Man.
If I said the rhythm differently, Ted and Laura would say, "Say it right, Daddy. Say it right."
Every night at bedtime I'd say, "What kind of story do you want tonight?" Sometimes they’d say, "An Artana story." So I’d tell them about Artana, an imaginary land of forests, rivers and unusual storytellers like Lady Ur and Lady Urbr (who are three inches tall) or the Lady of the Black Petunia (who lives deep in the forest and is protected by trees.)
Or my children might say, "Tell a bug story."
"What kind of bug?" I'd ask.
"A grasshopper bug!"
"A grasshopper bug?"
"Yes,” they’d say. “Go Daddy, go." Which meant “Begin.”
When Ted and Laura got to be five and six they'd say, "Tell when you were bad." I'd tell them a story when I was naughty or got into trouble, and then they would say, "Say more when you were bad."
I would reply, "That's as bad as I was."
"No, you were worse than that. Say when you were bad." Though these stories were in effect still adventure stories, something about their being personal made the children ask for them again and again.
One night when Laura was already asleep, Ted heard my made-up story about a character named Willie who wrote on the walls of his grandmother’s house and got caught. When I finished the story, I realized that was exactly what I had done as a little boy. I had gotten in trouble at my grandmother's house for writing on the walls. I called the story, Orange Cheeks, and I recorded it that very night - something I rarely did.
A year after making up Orange Cheeks, I was in a township in South Africa. I had been invited by the Union of Black Actors. The night was cold, a light rain fell and I stood in a shelter with a concrete roof with no walls. I told an African folk tale called A Story A Story to about thirty adults who were standing around. It was greeted with silence. I told a mime story that was supposed to be funny. More silence. Then I told Orange Cheeks. They laughed, applauded and moved closer. The rest of the evening went well. I was surprised that a story about a little boy getting into trouble at his grandmother's was so successful.
Through my children’s eagerness to hear stories from my own childhood, and the enthusiastic response to Orange Cheeks wherever I told it, I began to realize that the ordinary struggles of life have universal appeal. I decided to pay more attention to the people and places I’d known as a child, and finally, years later, I began to work on a long personal story – one about the time I got glasses.
The story of Glasses led me back in memory to the day I went to a new school. I was seven. I stepped into the classroom and fifty second graders burst out laughing because I was wearing short pants. The children, who lived in a rough section of town, had never seen a boy in short pants before. I felt scalded. A month after that, I had to get eyeglasses, and in that school only sissies wore eyeglasses. A much older boy called me "Big Ears, Four Eyes." It was my first encounter with the stinging power of being singled out for being different.
As I worked on the story, an unexpected character showed up in my memory and became part of the story: my Canadian-Japanese Aunt Ann. During World War II, she had been spat on in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because she was Japanese. My imagination linked me with my Aunt Ann, linked together our pain in being ridiculed. The main image in the story – a pair of glasses – reveals something about the way people “see” and how easily we blur reality with a lens of prejudice, fear, and illusion. Working on that story brought me deeper into my life and into Aunt Ann’s life.
I finished Glasses and performed it for nearly two years but no one was as moved by it as I was. One day I was rehearsing a scene from the story. In the scene my Uncle Jackie points to Aunt Ann and calls her "the Jap." There's such anger, rage, and hatred in Jackie's voice that I was filled with fury as I rehearsed. I could feel the hurt and frustration of the seven-year-old narrator who was telling the story. I exploded with anger, and when I finished the rehearsal I was limp. I was unable to do anything the rest of the day. For the first time, I had not just told the narrative facts of the story – I had allowed myself to truly feel its emotional depth. The next time I performed it, people laughed and cried. They were as moved as I was.
From that, I learned that I have to do the emotional work that a story demands. The emotional work may be tears, laughter, shouting, pacing, dreaming, singing or pounding on a pillow. I use a journal. I draw images. I go for walks and fume or cry or shout to the sea. I work with rehearsal buddies. The important thing is I want to face the emotions in each story, not evade them. It’s not always easy. I struggled with one story, The Labyrinth of Uncle Mark, because I had to include in it my own failures in order to tell the story honestly. Eight years ago, I put the story away because I could not face those failures. Recently I went back to “Mark” and finished it. Once my own failures became part of the story, the story had integrity. I had to stay committed to doing the emotional work, but patient, too, until I was ready and able to do it.
After Glasses, I became aware that there was a world of characters living inside me: aunts and uncles and grandparents. Friends and enemies. Teachers, good and bad. There were mailmen, firemen and policemen. Characters from books and movies and old stories. Billy the Kid, Wonder Woman and Hamlet - all hanging out together inside me. I love folk tales and fairy tales, and I love making stories up about other people's lives. But I am deeply drawn to crafting personal stories from this inner universe. I made a commitment to explore this inner universe without having any idea how it would continue to expand. As Goethe said, “The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too.”
Through personal stories I came to appreciate the people I’d known in a deeper way. It was only when I created the story of Father Joe that I realized my Uncle Joe was a great teacher. When I was in college, he had difficulty walking and breathing, and yet he was ever the mentor. He’d bring me the New York Times every day, and challenged me to ask questions. He’d make me face things. “Go out for track or don’t – but decide,” he’d say to me. He also taught me the cost of war. Because of the constant pain of the last seventeen years of his life, he had to give up teaching in the classroom. Only when I began working on his story did I become aware of how much he had sacrificed and how carefully he guided me. Deeper understanding and overdue appreciations are two of the rewards of creating personal stories.
With each story, I shape my inner universe to bring it dramatically alive and to tell my own truth. There are times when a character is drawn from several people. I change some names to protect privacy. Many of my aunts and uncles are dead, so I've kept their real names. If their struggles take them to the dark side, I usually change the names. I alter whatever I want in order to get to the deeper truth. I imagine a man standing beside Van Gogh as he painted sunflowers saying, "Vincent, you aren't painting the sunflowers I see." "No," Van Gogh would say, "I'm painting the sunflowers I see." As Diane Wolkstein says in Treasures of the Heart, "Stories are history and mystery."
The structure of every story emerges as I work on it. Berlioz once said that composing was always brand new because the problems are different with each composition. I worked on the story Father Joe for nearly two years and couldn’t get it right. My uncle, whom I got to know in college, was a brilliant physics professor, a Jesuit priest, and a brave man who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism aboard the USS Franklin (an aircraft carrier in World War II).
As I struggled to find the best structure for that story, my friend, Doug Lipman, who has helped me with all of my personal stories, suggested that I break up the story since I had tried everything else. So now in the story you see the narrator is a freshman in college and suddenly you’re on a burning aircraft carrier. The story plays with time. Some scenes are in the future, some in the past, some in the present. The structure tells an essential truth. Because of the war, my uncle suffered a terrible stroke – so the war was stamped on his body. It was present in each labored breath he took for the rest of his life.
Many of my personal stories were created to heal old wounds. I created Chickie because I was saddened that Chickie’s life was so bitter. Chickie lived in a tenement section of town called “The Farm,” a place of cold-water flats. I was aware of the scorn heaped on people who lived in The Farm. They were “lower class,” and that terrible class scorn helped to destroy Chickie.
I knew Chickie in the third grade. He was skinny and black haired, and when he smiled, his face looked like a wrinkled newspaper. His black eyes were merry; his language salty. By the fourth grade Chickie was delivering newspapers at five in the morning. He was also smoking and drinking whisky, and he became an alcoholic after high school. Chickie had the gift of making people laugh, but his gift wasn’t welcomed. He lost confidence in himself and drifted into drink. I had seen his wild fun and was sorry the world had not known him as I had, and I wrote his story so that the world could know his magic.
My story Politics is about the close friendship I had with another boy, Todd Adams (I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy), on Pill Hill. I began the story because I was hurt that by the time Todd and I were adults, our friendship seemed to dissolve. There’s a line in the story when a wise old woman, Mrs. Quincy, says to the narrator, “Friendship is more difficult than you realize. You grow up and you let things get in the way. Religion, money, marriage.” For the first time in my life, I truly understood the effect of those pressures on friendship.
I can remember sitting in a cottage in Maine working on that story and suddenly seeing Todd and myself - two fourteen-year-old boys -in Boston Garden looking way down at Adlai Stevenson giving the last speech of his campaign for the Presidency against Eisenhower. After Stevenson's speech the boys do something so daring and outlandish that they seal their friendship. Working on that story made me remember why that friendship was so important to me. I sent a cassette to Todd, and we renewed our friendship. Through the transforming power of art, the hurt of a lost friendship became the story that caused two friends to find each other again.
The story The Dance explored my high school days. They were painful, and I never expected to write about them, let alone tell a story. I felt lost in high school, and I had no idea how to deal with the roaring inner world of sexuality. In addition, I worshipped my father and put him on a lofty pedestal and refused to admit he had faults that frightened me. In The Dance, the high school narrator is unhappy with himself, furious at the prejudice he sees in the high school administration, and terrified at his father's late night rages. He goes out for track and runs his first indoor mile. His agony helps him break through something inside himself and he discovers a power he didn't know he had. After the race, he returns home and goes down to the cellar to tend the furnace. As he removes the red-hot clinkers, his newfound power explodes. He shouts out his fears and his truth to the dark cellar. He rails against his father's drinking, and he calls himself a cracked egg. Meanwhile, the father returns home, goes down to the cellar, and stands, stunned, listening to his son's rage. When the boy finishes, he heads upstairs and discovers his father. They're both embarrassed, and the father is hurt. They have an uncomfortable sandwich and say good night.
Later, the father goes to the boy's room and does his best to explain his own frustrations to the son. They have never talked this way. They both feel awkward but are trying. "You know what's in the egg, don't you?" the father asks.
"No, an eagle. I've seen the tips of its wings."
In that moment, their lives are changed forever. Creating The Dance allowed me to transform the pain and confusion of those years, and to understand my father in a deeper, more loving way. Old wounds can be the fire that makes a story live. We all have these wounds. The artist has the good fortune of being able to make something beautiful from these wounds.
Of course, sometimes a story can open old wounds as well. I remember going to my mother and telling her I was working on The Dance about me and Dad’s anger that came out when he was drinking. If I were to portray Dad fully, then the dark side must be there. The story caused hard feelings. For some family members, I was a traitor. A few family members said – without ever hearing the story – that I should never have created it. I think The Dance is a tribute to my dad, a magnanimous, compassionate man who, like all of us, had his struggles. But not everyone in the family thought of it that way, so it was hard going for a few years.
I did not create The Dance until after my father died. When my son Ted was at Hampshire College, he would listen to The Dance night after night as he developed film. He said that was how he got to know his grandfather. So personal stories have the potential to heal and the potential to hurt. I try to be sensitive to people’s feelings, but know it’s important to make these stories.
We all live in history. We all are part of history. Sometimes, a personal story can illuminate a historical moment. For example, in a new personal story, The Labyrinth of Uncle Mark, I tell about an uncle, a lawyer, and his struggle to make sure that his wife, my Aunt Ann, was not put into an internment camp with other Japanese-Americans. My Aunt Ann married my Uncle Mark in the middle of World War II, and my uncle gave up practicing law to protect his wife. He was seen as the family failure. Only after working on the story for long months did I realize how courageous they were. They took on the whole world. They were Romeo and Juliet writ large.
For Japanese-American citizens, the Constitution was set aside during the years of World War II. Japanese-Americans lost their rights, their land, their businesses - and almost no one spoke up for them. As I worked on this new story, I thought about the fact that part of our history right now, in 2004, is that we in the United States are in danger of losing some of our constitutional rights, and we’re vilifying Muslims. The story helped me understand how thoughtlessly we can brand an entire group of people as evil, and how easily freedoms can be lost.
In another example, creating the story Muddy River High helped me understand how oppressive the Cold War was, and how it affected the people who lived then. It was a heavy cloud that threatened to break open at any moment in atomic warfare. I had some teachers who embodied the cold war. They looked like the cold war – big and sour. They behaved like the cold war: life was black and white. One of my teachers, I’ll call her Miss Campbell, had a simple philosophy: "If you have a lot of gray matter and you work hard, you go to Yale. If you have a little gray matter and you fool around, you go to jail." Now that I’ve listened to their voices again through my story, I have more sympathy for those teachers. I realize now that they were, in many ways, shaped by the experience of living under the suspicion and fear of their times. One of the best ways to understand history is to create a personal story.
It's been a sheer joy these last few years to work on four stories called the "Pill Hill Quartet." In Electra and other stories, I try to bring alive a wonderful woman in our neighborhood, Mrs. Lawrence. She was brilliant and fascinating and never uttered a cliché. I once asked her how her grandmother was, and she answered in her low, deep, fog voice, "She's in the pink of decay." Because I'm a storyteller, I'm aware of the power of sound and can suggest the deep languor of her voice. As I worked on those stories, I realized if I did not create a story about Mrs. Lawrence, no one else would, and I want everyone to meet her.
If we go deep enough into a personal story, it becomes universal. We are, after all, all human. We grow, we have illusions, we dare, we get afraid, we love, we hate, we struggle and we grow. We do all of these things at particular places and with particular people and therein lies richness, mystery, and beauty.