Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | September 1, 2013

Telling Our Stories

unbrokenSome of the most riveting stories I’ve read or watched in the last few years have been memoirs and biographies:  Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, the two Jeanette Walls memoirs, and Lauren Hillenbrand’s Unbroken which tells Louis Zamperini’s story of the Olympics and World War II.  Documentaries I’ve found equally inspiring include that of musician Rodriguez (Detroit’s “Sugar Man”) and of director Jean-Dominique Bauby (“The Iron Bell and the Butterfly”), as well as those of artists and photographers around the world who have captured beauty in infinite ways, even using garbage (“Waste Land”).

paytonWith so many interesting people to learn about, I find I can’t escape into more than a couple of novels before I’m drawn back to the lives of the real.  Biography is an ever-growing section in our libraries and book stores, and little wonder.  My colleagues and I decided to have our senior class read biographies this summer, choosing 5 recent top sellers for them to pick from, including Wild, Unbroken, and Walls’ The Glass Castle, as well as books by Walter Payton and a Navy Seal.  We thought that with just a year left before these students embark on adulthood, it would be helpful for them to find some potential new role models or at least be exposed to one extraordinary life.

kahloIn class this past week, we’ve been analyzing biography as a genre, dissecting its parts and understanding its purpose.  We’ve pondered the question:  Whose lives become biographies?  The students were quick to identify world leaders, revolutionary thinkers, talented artists, and celebrities as prime candidates, for the sake of understanding history, appreciating brilliance, and satisfying our basic curiosity about the rich and famous.  Then we moved into that other realm of biographic writing – the memoir – which chronicles one time period or experience in a person’s life.  Here, the students realized, is where we read also of “ordinary” people whose lives take a turn into the extraordinary, through hardship or loss, injury or illness, a personal challenge, or an incredible accomplishment.  The students agreed that sometimes these are the most riveting stories to read, since this kind of story might be ours one day.  Perhaps it already is.

swearing-inI had the students do some preliminary work exploring their own family histories, and not one claimed to have a life devoid of an interesting story.  One wrote of a grandparent’s experience in Vietnam; several wrote of family elders’ immigration to America.  One wrote of a father who discovered his birth mother five years ago.  Some wrote of horrible illnesses or injuries that changed their family dynamic; one wrote of a family trip to Africa.  Indeed, even at age 17 or 18, we can begin to recognize and appreciate the major ups and downs of our family’s narratives, seeing them as stories worth telling.

1943-kolff-drumA few years ago, I started dabbling with a memoir of my mother’s final years, which included thirteen years on home dialysis and a kidney transplant.  I was taking a course on Oral History at the time, and my work involved interviewing family members as well as scouring the internet for information about the early work with dialysis technology  (which I discovered goes as far back as the Korean War battlefield and involves the shells of washing machines and orange juice cans.  Who wouldn’t be fascinated by that?)

After the course had finished, I moved on to other classes that involved writing fiction and poetry, and my interests moved to those areas.  But time has passed and circumstances have changed. My father has moved back to Illinois from his retirement in Arizona, so he is much more available to chat with me about the past.  My son is older and requires less constant attention.  And so now, the study of memoir writing in my classes is nudging me back to the story of my own family – my mother’s illness, my father’s efforts to keep her alive, and the effects it had on us all, in ways we are still discovering nearly fifty years later.  I believe it is a story worth telling, perhaps just for my family members and those who know us, or perhaps for a wider audience of people who enjoy reading about the lives of ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in unchartered, perilous territory.

A family wades through flood waters in Pakistan's Muzaffargarh district of Punjab provinceMaybe the older we get, the more we come to value the power of each life story in the patchwork of human history.  Each can serve to bring clarity to the path ahead, individually and collectively, since stories of personal suffering and triumph serve to bond us as a family of humans, regardless of where we live on the planet.  These stories need to be told and heard so that we have an understanding of how to bear the next catastrophe, as well as an understanding of our capacity for inflicting harm – and for enduring it.  Amidst the chaos of wars, politics, natural disasters, and the daily travails we all face, our stories can ground us in the reality of being human, illuminating not only the evils and hardships, but also the joys and miracles we witness along the way.


Responses

  1. I enjoy all your writings/ poems, but the ones concerning your Mother are
    priceless for me and the memories they stir of my little “big” sister.

    • If I dig into this project, I’m going to have to interview you too, Jo!


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