telling a true story



“I dare you to stop counting and start acting. To stop pleasing and start defying. I dare you to trust what you know. The second wind is beyond data. It is past pain. it is found in the bloodstream and cells of the women and men who purged the poison of their perpetrators, who walked through the cancer, the nightmares. The second wind is coming from your body, it’s in your mouth, it’s in the way you move your hips.” ~ Eve Ensler, In the Body of the World

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” ~ Chinua Achebe

“I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.” ~ bell hooks

After the read around last week, I was excited to get back to our writing group and hear what our writers had to say about their experience. What was their story of the night? Our group’s theme for the night was narrative so it was an easy transition and it also opened the same dialogue we always open: the opportunity for everyone to tell their version of their own story.

What happened surprised me. We had a much smaller group than we usually do right after read arounds and the mood was somber. This happens every now and then – the environment in the prison alters everyone’s feelings and our group experiences some needed quiet. Or the subject matter brings up difficult stories and keeps everyone feeling weighted, their words freighted on the page. I can never tell walking in the door and I can’t touch a majority of their experience.

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the voice in your pocket

illustration of vasalisa

I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories… water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype

Last week, we started the story ‘Vasalisa,’ a Russian and global folktale. In the story, Vasalisa loses her mother and receives a doll to keep her pocket. The doll, her mother’s dying gift, is supposed to lead her in her mother’s absence. Through a series of misfortunes, she is alone in the woods in search of fire. She can only seek help from the witch Baba Yaga to rekindle her home hearth. But Baba Yaga is a dangerous character who tests Vasalisa at the constant threat of death. With the help of her doll, whose voice indeed guides her throughout the story, she passes all the tests and returns home with fire, burning up her enemies and lighting her home.

In her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes how this little doll is the carrier of the inner voice, the intuition that guides someone when they are positively lost and without a clear path in sight. That’s the situation that Vasalisa is in throughout the story and each of us, I’m sure, can relate to this.

Once, a long time ago, I had a strange and wonderful teacher who gave me a book I could not understand. I spent three hours getting through 16 pages. I went to him and said, “I do not understand this.” And completely unruffled, he replied, “I didn’t intend you to. This was intended to initiate you in the material.” He was planting seeds for a place my mind would someday travel to and cultivate when I was ready.

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creating a narrative

credit –

Many of us are familiar with the basic, linear plot line: beginning, middle, end. There is a start, a problem, a rising action, a climax, a falling action, a finish. The central character, the community is altered, thrown through a series of events that unfold in a linear way. This is a very basic idea.

A couple weeks ago, I went in and encouraged everyone to write stories about solace, about times when the world fell away and they felt safe. Many of them said that those times were rare. When we came back together, one woman said it was hard to tell stories when most of the time, her stories started in the middle and jumped all over the place. They bent time around central ideas and she thought they would be difficult to understand.

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summer nights

Summer Solstice Sunset

Summer Solstice Sunset (Photo credit: erik9000)

June is rich with writing prompts, what with Father’s Day, the Summer Solstice, commencements and other celebrations. Although women inside Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility have limited opportunities to be outdoors during this or any season, they carry strong memories and associations within. Last week we wrote pieces about how summer’s proliferation of nature resonates with us. As is our custom in the week following a circle, I create a ‘found poem’ from lines shared at the previous meeting. This creates a kind of communal poem, woven from the words of each woman. Put together in this way, phrases change and merge their meanings in new and unexpected ways as women hear their words anew.

Rain moving in
spreads through the sky.
Watch it, watch it closely;

the world awakening
in this small piece of her earth
is alive! breathe it all in!

Stripped of all my identities
her story becomes my story –
she has arisen so quickly

she travels far, she climbs high
then she walks down, down, down
to what matters most
her only wish to live and be free.

Who can see day turn to night?
vines have climbed, the birds calling
a new perspective.

How complex I am!|
my heart wants
the bared truth
born with a will to live,
to dribble sand castles of longing
into the voice that was always my own