Tell Me Your Story

According to rumor, Mr. Rogers carried this quote from the author Mary Lou Kownacki in his wallet: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love, once you’ve heard their story.” Whether or not he did, it’s a lovely thought that reflects an important pillar of my life’s work.

We all judge strangers based on our initial impression of them. Their physical appearance. Their smile or frown or vacant stare. What they are wearing. How they carry themselves or the sound of their voice. It’s a natural instinctive reaction to new stimuli that I suppose helped our ancestors when we were hunter/gatherers, when new encounters could lead to life or death decisions.

Though we have evolved since then, modern life is so busy and complex, that it’s often easier (and less time-consuming) to fall back on those outdated survival instincts. However, cutting ourselves off from the potential such encounters can offer makes our world smaller and diminishes our opportunities (social, cultural and economic). It turns the grand adventure our lives can be into a mere existence in which we rigidly remain who and what we are, never learning, never growing and having far less fun.

What’s more, you never know who you might meet.

That’s one of the reasons I often shake things up in my workshops and lectures, sometimes asking people to sit next to someone they’ve never met. Then, to introduce themselves, and tell the other person one fact a stranger might never guess just by looking at them. Learning another person’s story is a beginning; where it might lead is anyone’s guess.

So, tell me your story. What would surprised me, or fascinate me, or give me a clue about your inner self that I don’t yet know about you?

In the Beginning…


The Storyteller by Sally Wiener Grotta
The Storyteller (c) by Sally Wiener Grotta


In the beginning…. How many tales start with those three words? In all languages, from every people who have ever walked this earth. Here is mine – or at least, my latest.

In the beginning, there was Story. Before Story, all was amorphous, unfathomable. Mysteries too profound and daunting to ever be knowable. Yet the human mind needs shape and form. We struggle to create it even in a dense, nebulous fog. We look up at the night sky with its chaotic multitude of stars and see creatures and gods staring down at us, maybe even watching us.

We are so small and insignificant, mere pebbles in the surf, tossed here and there by forces beyond our ken. Why? Who made it so? Questions formed in our minds and gave birth to Story. And with Story, we stepped up one more evolutionary level, becoming human.

Story gives shape and meaning. It’s how we learn to ask questions, to try to find answers.

The nature of Story is that it is as changeable as the world it seeks to understand, as varied as the many storytellers who weave the tales. With every retelling, new threads and new colors are added, as new answers try to reshape the questions, sometimes replacing the old.

I have been fascinated by Story as long as I can remember. At a very young age, I was privileged to be immersed in a wide ranging buffet of tales, all of which shaped my mind, my beliefs and eventually my own tellings. Greek mythology. Christian parables. Jewish, Asian, African and Native American folk tales and spiritual traditions. So similar in many ways to each other, as each human being is similar to others, especially in the nature of our questions. And yet, just as each person is unique, each tale came to me as an individual, with a personality shaped by its progenitors, birthplace and cultural milieu. Over the years, they have merged and morphed, becoming as much a part of me as my childhood memories – which are yet another series of stories I tell myself, a personal mythology that I use to try to understand who I am, where I came from, and why.

So, though I may not be able to pinpoint which influences came from which tale, I carry them within me. They taught me the important lessons of Story: that questions are what propel us, and that a good tale touches all of us, reaching through barriers as nothing else can.

That’s why storytelling is an integral component of all education and why in my novel The Winter Boy, it’s a primary vehicle used by the Alleshi (a cloistered society of widows) to train the young men entrusted to them. Tell a student a fact or idea, and it has a small chance of sticking, with more and more being forgotten as time passes. But give students a good, meaningful story that threads the ideas and facts into the fabric of all too human lives, and they will hold it within them until it becomes part of them, and they may even share it with their grandchildren. Thus the Alleshi have created a unified society out of diverse tribes and villages, using Story as a common language and social glue.

Yet, sometimes stories can throw up obstacles, too – often surprising the teller. I tell book discussion groups that the novel I write isn’t the novel they read. That’s because we all carry our histories and preconceptions with us, flavoring our reactions. But that’s true not only with reading but living. Even as we hear words and ideas, we reshape them as our personal predilections would have them be.

In my novel Jo Joe, Judith Ormand (a mixed-race Jewish woman raised by her white Christian grandparents) returns to her hometown, filled with anger and bitterness as she confronts people from her youth who hurt her, shunned her, or simply didn’t love her as she wanted/needed. It’s a story of prejudice and lost innocence, told from Judith’s first person view, created from within her, shaped by who she is and how she sees the world, until her history becomes a personal mythology on which she has built her life. She – and the people she has known — project misconceptions and expectations rather than see each other fully. I am pleased that Jo Joe is being used to fuel discussions about bridging the ethnic/racial divide.

Why did I choose to make Judith multi-racial (with a father who is French, Black and Jewish, while her mother is a white American from a Christian family)? It’s that subconscious I was talking about earlier. Judith was born in my mind fully formed, right down to her name, churned forth by Story so that she was who I needed her to be for the novel that evolved out of her. I’ll leave it to others to psychoanalyze me why I needed Judith, why I was compelled to write Jo Joe. All I can say is that Judith is a soul-deep part of me, just as Joe Anderson is (the white boy who cruelly broke her heart). As all the characters I write are. Even Wayne Anderson, Joe’s violent bully brother, who comes from my deepest nightmares.

Some might question the appropriateness of me writing in the first person of a mixed race woman. I would respond, until you know me, truly know me – and my writing – please don’t project your expectations on me. You might be surprised what you find under the first impression you might have of this white middle-aged middle-class Jewish woman.

Judith learned that lesson the hard way. I’m still learning it, though I believe that my multi-cultural upbringing has helped me to try to understand before projecting, to try to listen and ask questions before reacting to surface impressions. It’s a constant struggle for me, as it is for all of us. Shortcut stereotyping – or as CW would call it, profiling – is an easy default. When I see a stranger – or read a new author’s book – it’s much simpler to try to slot him or her into categories I recognize and feel comfortable responding to, either negatively or positively, based on my history with other “similar” folk. The more difficult, but much more interesting and rewarding path, is to try to see and read each person anew. That’s another and probably the most important lesson all those tales that I ingested as a child taught me.

From the beginning, Story gave us a wide diversity of voices, sung to different rhythms. Sometimes we haven’t understood each other’s words, actions or histories, but we have Story to guide us, to change us and help us grow until, if we’re lucky, we can learn to understand and appreciate each other.

Walking the Starry Path

“‘It’s up there in the sky for us all to see, a prayer every night.
A good story fill you up when you hungry, when you lonely.
A good song take the hurting out your spirit.
No harm believing in that.’ She gave him a wind-up music box.
‘Play this and think of the stars smiling on you.'”

from From Redwood and Wildfire
by Andrea Hairston

When I was a young child, my mother had two sure fire ways to get me to go to bed. My favorite was when she would read me to sleep. As I drifted off, riding the rhythms of her voice, I would often continue to weave the tale in my dreams. My dreamtales became so real to me that I was sometimes surprised when she read the same stories to me again and they finished in a different way than I remembered.

The other was to tune the radio to “fairie music.” (Looking back, I suppose it was the name I gave to classical orchestrations that purred rather than crashed.) Sometimes, Mother would be frustrated in trying to find a station playing just the right kind of sweet music I wanted. But when she did, it billowed through my mind, guiding me to see stars dancing and to feel the breeze of dreams. The music, like the stories, carried me to a place in my imagination that existed beyond the here and now.

When I speak to audiences about storytelling, I often say that it is hardwired into the human psyche. From the beginning of time, stories have been the way we teach and learn, how we communicate and think, the pattern we give to our questions about the world around us and the shape we try to give to our beliefs and attempts to understand.

But I must go one step further… Story is who and what I am, how I try to understand myself, my world, my uncertainties and my fears. How I try to make sense of love and hate, anger and sorrow.

I have never stopped attempting to finish my mother’s tales. It’s what drives me forward and burbles within my subconscious, flavoring my days and especially my nights.

I am a storyteller. It is my mother’s gift to me. And her curse. And the song her soul sings to me of what may come.

Sometimes, late at night when I can’t sleep, I lie there in bed, staring at the dark ceiling far above my head, and I hear the rhythm of new words, the tune of a fairie’s harp from far away, and it carries me away from the thoughts and fears that plague my mind. And I walk the starry path to another story to be dreamed.

Inviting My Fictional Characters to Tea

Self-portrait: Sally Wiener Grotta, storyteller“Welcome home, my dear friends. Please sit. Let’s catch up on what’s happened since you were last with me. Rishana and Judith , I’m sure you have a lot to share with each other, but please, not behind my back. Johanna , I suggest that you have a chat with Savah, she might be able to help you. Ryl and Joe, you know where the scones are; please bring them from the kitchen, while we await the others. Now, where were we?”

About a week ago, I was sitting in the glow of the Lag B’Omer bonfire, when Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum asked me what I was doing these days. A loaded question, to be sure, what with Read More