Collaborations are the Best

Back in February I met Rosie Summers and some of her Leeds College of Art classmates at a Greenpeace Leeds meeting in the UK.

They asked if they could animate one of the water / climate change stories that I recorded. They chose a story from Noelline Gillies, a woman in her 80s from Omarama, New Zealand who I recorded in 2015.

Here’s a trailer of the result.

I am so, so happy with their work! Enjoy.
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I’m Teaching Two Classes!

Hey world! I’m teaching two week-long online writing classes in March for 24 Pearl Street, the online branch of the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center.

It was a huge honor to be offered this position.

One course is on deep listening: http://web.fawc.org/24-pearl-street/tell-me-story-power-deep-listening

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The other is on tangible things & how our bodies interact with space: http://web.fawc.org/24-pearl-street/tangible-things-object-based-storytelling

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Both are poetry / non-fiction hybrid courses. I had a lot of fun dreaming up the syllabi and am confident that they will be two transformational weeks. Come join!

You can view the full list of the courses that 24 Pearl Street offers here: http://web.fawc.org/24-pearl-street/workshops

Big love from the Whanganui River,

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Q&A: How to Collect a Story

Earlier this week I received an email from a friend in Montana who is organizing a climate change storytelling workshop for local youth. The idea is to give middle schoolers and high schoolers an introduction to recording stories (video, in their case) and then have them go out into their communities to record conversations with their friends and family about climate change.

I love this idea!

My friend asked me to share some advice for the workshop attendees. “How do you begin?” she asked.

Here goes:

I start with the “tell me a story about water and/or climate change” prompt, and then go from there. I wear a cardboard sign around my neck to make it obvious that I am out in the world to collect a story.

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with storyteller Elizabeth Taylor in Rosedale, Mississippi (September 2014)

A lot of oral history is about encouraging storytellers that their voice matters. People have stories to share, but in order to share a story, they have to trust you first. You have to make them feel comfortable.

There are many ways of doing this.

Informed consent is important. People need to know where the material is going, and why you’re doing it. I always take down people’s email addresses / contact info so that I can get in touch with them later if the need arises.

Never turn on the audio recorder unless someone says it is okay.

A story is a gift, and you should treat it as such.

After someone tells me their story I always make a point of thanking them. Invariably, after the audio recorder is turned off, people will ask: “Is that okay? Was my story alright?” — I say yes. I say thank you.

Let people know that their voice matters. It does.

I also make a point of not interrupting a storyteller — newspaper / radio reporters do this, but I find that it’s awful in an oral history context. Let people tell their story on their own terms. The story is not about you. You are there to record it, yes, but the storyteller’s voice is far more important than your own. If you have a follow up question, ask it after their story has come to a natural close.

Plus, it makes it easier to edit later if there are pauses. Embrace the silence. It’s not a bad thing. Silence is rhythmic architecture — the places where we build things. Silence is beautiful.

Also, it’s essential to monitor the audio with headphones as you are recording. Wind noise is the worst and should be avoided at all costs. I use a windscreen over my microphone so that I can record outside.

Monitoring the sound will also let you know if you should move the recorder closer to the storyteller, for instance.

Go out into the world and listen.

Hope this helps.

Some Stories Rush Through Me Like Rising Water

I have been taken in by a South African family in a suburb just outside Gold Coast. They were visiting Sri Lanka with their two young sons in 2004 and survived the tsunami. They ran.

Their description of the rising water gave me the chills. A wedge. Speed. The terror of being separated and the relief of finding each other alive.

I can’t do justice to the story here (the recording speaks for itself), but wow.

I am so, so grateful to the people who open up their homes and their hearts to me and tell me a story.

Can I say that I love what I’m doing? I love what I’m doing. Sometimes I have my doubts and wish that I chose an easier path, but this is my path. I’m a listener, through and through.

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the tools of the trade — my Sony M-10

Burritos, Chaos, and Round Windows

Christina and I sit across from one another in chairs affixed to concrete above the Bay, cradling warmish halves of a burrito between our hands. The night is calm and alight, buzzing with an energy that makes me never want to leave this city. If I didn’t have a flight in four days to Fiji, I probably wouldn’t go. Programmed light bulbs on the spires of the Bay Bridge dance in waves from left to right, whispering in my ear: Stay. Just stay.

baybridge“YEAH, GIANTS!!!!!!!!” someone screams from the moon roof of a passing car, their orange foam finger waving in the air.

We laugh. A drunk San Franciscan stumbles by and sees my sign perched on the edge of the chair: tell me a story about water. He mumbles with a mouth full of spittle: “Is that for the Giants?”

“Yes. Unequivocally yes.”

“World series, here we come!” Christina chimes.

I take a bite and let rice and red beans and avocado meld in my mouth. This burrito has ruined all future burritos for me (thanks, burrito). The flavor is chaotic and free. I feel so alive.

A grease stain from the bag of tortilla chips that came with the burritos marks my “tell me a story about water” sign, oblong and unapologetic just below the letter T.

~

Christina picks me up in her Prius outside of the UCSF library where I had hunkered down for an afternoon of writing. Though I love the act of meeting new people and listening, just listening, I get exhausted from constant conversation. Writing without interruption is a refuge.

I was an endurance athlete in college, and apparently that side of my character permeated the design of this trip. Just. Keep. Going (but remember to rest and recharge).

I have lost track of the number of times I introduce myself in a day.

“What is that sign all about?” it begins. I have a short version, medium version, and long version of my life story to share with anyone who asks.

The medical books in the library lend me their quiet. I open one on brain aneurism surgery and quietly close it, nauseated. Another book shows me the diagram of the inside of a human ear. There exists a membrane called the round window that vibrates with opposite phase to vibrations entering the inner ear. The round window allows fluid in the snail-shaped tube (the cochlea) to move. This movement generates pressure waves in the fluid, ensuring that hair cells of the basilar membrane are stimulated. The hair cells connect to a neuron that translates the bending motion into a signal that enters the brain. Brilliant.

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Silence can be self-care.

~

Christina opens the car door from the inside and welcomes me into her life with the whole of her smile and a big hug. Though we are both part of an online community of women writers that started back in July, we have yet to meet in person. Christina saw on Facebook that I was passing through San Francisco and offered to get dinner and chat. I am so glad that I said yes.

Her voice is a duvet cover. Soft. Present. A balm to my fatigue.

“So where do you want to go eat?” she asks.

“I’ve heard that the burritos here are something else.”

“Then we’ll get burritos. There are two great taquerías in the Mission,” she explains, “and they’re just around the corner from each other. What do you say we do a taste test?”

The Prius is eerily quiet at stoplights. The car could be dead but for our voices. I can see how many miles per gallon we earn on the dash. Thirty-four on the straightaway. Ninety-nine on the downhill. We speed through the city, crisp and efficient.

Minutes in to our conversation, it is a relief not to censor myself: “I don’t know if this is TMI, but…” I begin.

Christina butts in: “There is no such thing as TMI here.”

That’s when I know I have found a friend.

Our conversation spreads from the car’s interior to the sidewalk as we catch up on each other’s lives––the small stories that have brought us to this precise moment. Our families. Our earliest memories. The things we love.

“So you were a dancer, right?” she says.

“How did you know?”

She cites Facebook pictures in which I have my hands up in a particularly dancer-like pose.

 

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Ok—I guess it’s pretty obvious.

We both grew up dancing. We rowed in college. We are fascinated with the idea of flow in movement. We reject settling down and settling for less than the best in relationships. We are 25 years apart in age but none of that matters. We remember the freedom of learning to ride a bike. We love the feeling of San Francisco’s hills in our legs.

Errant, elated cars honk and bleat as they pass behind us.

The bay water laps itself free.