We as personal historians regularly caution one another about the risks of bringing up stories that are too painful for the teller. In retrospect I can see that my past experience as a professional storyteller was a gentle path for me to better understand this issue. The stories that I told over the years explored my own feelings. I also learned how to shield from public view those stories of mine that belonged in the therapist’s office, while I turned others into healing events. I believe that this can often be a benefit from a well-told personal history.
One of the stories most significant to me in my fifteen year career as a professional storyteller is probably familiar to many people—Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling, a classic story that’s been told and retold over the generations. (The version shown here is a Caldecott Honor book from 1999.)
In my telling, the story had a short recurrent chorus that transformed as the “duckling” himself transformed. It’s a story of discovery—rather than being the misfit others perceived him to be, the “duckling” is actually a thing of beauty, stuck in a world that sees him only as different from itself.
Once the “duckling” is confronted by hunting dogs, and in a bittersweet conversation, the dogs ask, “Why don’t you just be yourself?” The duckling replies, “If I knew what I was, I would.”
The story proceeds on its painful path through winter to spring, the “duckling” continuing to try to fit in, when finally he discovers “The most beautiful creatures—swans.” Determined to join the birds, he approaches them, and rather than rejection, he receives love and self-discovery. As he looks down at the water he realizes that the swans he so admires are a mirror image of himself.
Each time I shared this story I internalized the transforming affirmation for myself. I believe it was not an accident that I began telling stories such as these shortly after a time of huge personal betrayal and upheaval in my own life.
Recently in my new life as a personal historian, I was challenged by some colleagues to try to write my own personal history, using our own version of National Novel Writing Month, an effort that recurs each November. I leapt in, and as with most new endeavors, enjoyed the first days of writing, but then hit places of deep pain. Members of the virtual group, scattered around the country, offered encouragement and shared their own struggles. I kept going and ultimately completed what I wanted to say. But it didn’t always feel wonderful.
Having tried to write my own personal history, I now know what I try to tell others: sometimes it really helps to have someone else hold your hand through this process. This is one reason why professional personal historians often will capture a story better than an individual can on his or her own.
I’m grateful for what I have learned in my work as a storyteller. As we encourage our clients to tell the stories of their own lives, we must be mindful of where the stories are taking them. It is not a terrible thing to revisit places of deep pain, but it is important that we listen carefully, be patient, and hold a hand when needed. And perhaps most importantly, at the end be sure to applaud and assure the teller that her story is unique and precious.
About today’s contributor: Marjorie Turner Hollman is a freelance writer, storyteller, and personal historian living in Massachusetts—but she grew up in Florida and comes from a long line of Southern storytellers. Now APH Chapter Coordinator for MA-RI-CT, she has completed two memoirs and is working on a third. She is also a member of the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling.