BY SUZANNE KELMAN
March 1, 2017
“It’s not religious leaders or politicians, but storytellers that change the world.”
Amy Wheeler – executive director of Hedgebrook
We live in interesting times.
So much is happening so fast all around me at the moment that it’s hard to stop my head from twisting off and shooting into space. No matter how you view the times we are going through, it has never felt so important for storytellers everywhere to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
As a comedy writer, most of the time I don’t give much thought to the loftier call of storytelling. Most of my life in front of the typewriter (laptop, actually, but typewriter sounds so much more grand) is taken up with all the fundamental moving parts of crafting the story itself. However, it has really struck me over the last few months that there is also value in storytelling as a balm that holds great significance in our everyday lives.
When Toni Morrison felt like many of us do now, a friend told her. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
I think Toni’s friend is right. The art of echoing our ideals through the ancient art of telling stories is the way we find our way back to ourselves. This is because story reaffirms who we are and connects us with each other in a deeper way that gives us hope and purpose for our future.
I have spent a lot of time at the Clyde Theatre in Langley lately, four times in the last two weeks. In that time, I have seen “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” (twice) and “La La Land.” Viewed through the filters of my current experience, I found that each story touched me in a profound but different way.
“Hidden Figures” is the story of three black women that did crucial work for the space program in the 1960s; it was all about their brilliance and segregation. It was a window into our country’s history and the daily struggles that black women had to traverse just to do their work. The story was heart-soaring, and their bravery and courage was inspiring.
I also went to see “La La Land,” which is a modern-day story of people falling in love in Hollywood while trying to find themselves. The musical was contemporary with dance numbers and magical realism, a throwback to the golden days of Hollywood. As a big fan of the ‘30s and ‘40s Hollywood scene, it was a magical experience for me — a reminder of all that is good about this country and a perfect escape for a rainy Saturday afternoon.
I also saw the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” an intense and raw depiction of what it feels like to grow up black and gay in poverty. I felt my heart stretch as I watched the story unfold of a person who, under normal circumstances, I would never have a chance to know or understand. What a gift to be allowed to experience another person’s journey through life.
What all these experiences have in common is the truth that storytelling can provide relief. It educates us, challenges us, and also reminds us of where we are and how we can work toward a better world.
When we, as a nation, are going through growing pains, you see that every storyteller has a part to play. Times are changing, and with that there is a lot of fear. But storytelling can help us mediate that passage by reflecting back to us who we are, who we have been, and inspire who we can become.
Lastly, as a humorist, I have to give a shout out to comedy in all of this. Yes, laughter has its purpose and place in this process, too. Humor has the power to give you relief and also to cast out fear; you cannot be scared of something you are laughing at. It is the best weapon in a world that might feel as if it is out of control. So, even if your message isn’t lofty and inspiring, there is still work to do.
As Toni Morrison says, “I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty. So, from my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.”
So to all you storytellers out there, take up your pen, which is mightier than the sword. Don’t think that your voice is not of value or that your stories aren’t inspiring. Everything that reminds us of who we are is of the upmost importance in these times.
So let me encourage you, just as Toni Morrison’s friend encouraged her:
“We speak, we write, we do language!”
Suzanne Kelman is the author of “The Rejected Writers’ Book Club” and an award-winning screenwriter and playwright. She was a Nicholl Fellowship Finalist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; was awarded Best Comedy Feature Screenplay at the L.A. International Film Festival; received a Gold Award at the California Film Awards; and received a Van Gogh Award at the Amsterdam Film Festival.
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