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On Storytelling

I should begin by saying that I feel very ambivalent about sharing my own story. I did once, as part of a Storycorps interview with my husband. At the time the Storycorps Military Voices Initiative had partnered with Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) to search for veterans willing to share their stories. After reaching out to their members and finding no takers, WWP turned to my husband, a contract employee. He agreed, feeling rather ambivalent himself.

The morning we recorded our story was cold and rainy. We took a painfully slow weekend J train into lower Manhattan. We were running late and hadn’t eaten breakfast, so we stopped to get bagels, which quickly devolved into us arguing about whether or not we had enough time to wait in the enormous line to order our breakfast (We did—I won.) We walked down to Foley Square and ate our bagels in silence, in the cold, staring at the strange little metal and glass hut in the middle of the park where we would record our story.

Once inside the tiny recording room, we sat across from each other, giant microphones largely blocking our lines of sight. I had been asked to prepare a few questions to get the interview started but those were quickly ignored as my husband steered the conversation in whichever direction he’d probably unconsciously decided to take it the moment he signed up for this experiment. It was a meandering, painful hour, during which we rehashed every miscommunication and painful memory we’d lived through over the past three years. It was exhausting. It felt pointless. It felt empty. We finished the conversation, took the requisite photo, and signed the releases allowing Storycorps to use our conversation in whatever way they saw fit. We left the recording booth and emerged into the gray afternoon, crossing the street out of the park and lighting our cigarettes. Although my husband was silent, his agitation was palpable. “Do you think anyone will ever hear that, or do anything with it?” I asked. “No,” my husband said, flinging his cigarette butt into the gutter.

But they did. At first they made a cut of our conversation and used it at the Brooklyn Museum for the opening of the exhibit WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY. Shortly after, another cut was made which aired on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Back in the tiny town I grew up in, people stopped my parents and remarked, “I think I heard your daughter on the radio!” My classmates at Hunter posted on my facebook wall and stopped me in the hallway and told me how they felt about the piece. Still, I felt ambivalent. What did an hour of my own discomfort and pain really birth? Did it make a difference? Did it continue to live in the minds of those who heard it? Was it truly representative of me?

Service TogetherTelling your story is a little bit like cutting out the tiniest sliver of a moment in time and pinning it to your lapel. It follows you wherever you go; and although time moves in all directions — a fourth dimension within which we fold in upon ourselves and rise, fall, and grow — that story remains as the punched-out memento of a single moment, captured and preserved. I wonder how artists and authors reconcile this conundrum. How does one release a finite moment of time and thought, and make peace with it as they swim out to the greater depths that define our lives?

I am compelled to think about these questions because I am now requesting stories from others. I have reached out to veterans and civilians and asked them to contribute their thoughts to be shared in future Service Together blogs. I encourage them to share their stories because I still do, at the core of my being, believe in the power of stories. I simply ask that you treat them kindly and remember that their words are attached to their greater, indefinable humanity. Read with care.