Friday, August 26, 2011

What is Your Watermark?: The Narratives that Hold our Lives in Place

The subject of narrative--particularly how stories are written or told, and remembered--is one that keeps coming up lately. And not just in the obvious places like my MFA program. During a Jewish women's retreat several weeks ago in Mendocino, our Rabbi Margaret Holub said stories are one of the ways humans imprint how we see and act upon the world--what Vladimir Nabokov described in Speak, Memory as "the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark."

Rabbi Holub, a wonderful scholar who weaves intellect with deft insight and humor into her teachings, cited the work of a narrative psychologist whose mentor, the anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, was one of Holub's own. (I saw her documentary film Number Our Days, based on her enthnography of an elder Jewish population in L.A., several times as an Anthro undergrad.) In preparing for our retreat, Rabbi Holub and the organizers considered the importance of narrative in our lives: how stories can empower individuals and populations, but they can also serve to keep us stuck.

Thus, the theme of this year's retreat was Yetziah, or going forth--leaving the known for the unknown, with many opportunities to examine and alter the dominant narrative along the way. Using the story of Exodus from Egypt, or Mitzrayim--translated as "the narrows" or place of constriction--as metaphor for our writing and rituals, we were called upon to consider its role in our lives, and to examine the paradoxical ways we are each constricted or liberated--personally as individuals and collectively as a culture.

Holub noted the stories that stick most are often the ones of pain and hardship. In this week's writing class, Narrating Nonfiction, Professor Stephen Beachy discussed one of the challenges of creating a "narrative persona"--illuminating oneself as a complex, real character--as the tendency to highlight all other characters' wrongs against oneself (i.e. narrator = good; everyone who has done her harm = bad). The best stories are ones of transformation, what USF professor/program director Kate Brady calls "the redemptive power of writing."

What is the watermark that has colored your life, and how has it made its imprint? Has it changed over time in the retelling? How can you transform it?

Consider the tight spaces, physically or mentally, that you ache to leave behind. What are you moving towards? What keeps you stuck in place?

I've written before about reconciling the battle between my insatiable desire to create works of vision through words, and the self-fulfilling prophesy of the inner critic, the internalized naysayer, the troll that lurks beneath. My own struggle in going forth comes from a longstanding life narrative of not being "good enough," despite much evidence to the contrary--from an English achievement award in high school to my grad school merit scholarship, from my college professor Peter Nabokov's urging that I could be anything, including a writer, to the recent encouragement from a literary journal that found my writing "interesting" and would like to see more of it. The list goes on...

Yet, often when I am about to dive, the doubts come racing in with a vengeance, a great roaring in my mind like a flash flood to wipe out the dream as I falter. I recently read in an article in "O" magazine, about listening to one's inner voice, that Fear will always speak louder. It becomes more deafening the closer I get to leaving the life raft for invisible but imagined shores. Somehow my ancestors trusted the seas to part, or had faith in crossing oceans to new lands.

These days my story of struggle is changing. Those deeply ingrained patterns that no longer serve my vision are cracking open to reveal new pathways. I'm taking the risks that come with truth-telling by the reigns. These days my story is leaping from its lock box. It is no longer containing itself.


SuZan said...

I like this one! The older I become, the more I understand the deep truth of "we are what we think."

rosaria said...

An ahah moment!

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