Our stories, our selves

Chintan Girish Modi

Get rid of the idea of a perfect story. There is no such thing. We are here to tell stories in ways that feel most comfortable to us,” said Anooj Bhandari, a multi-disciplinary performance artist, restorative justice professional and community organizer from New York City, while leading a personal storytelling workshop in Mumbai on January 25 and 26, 2020. It was hosted by Storycellar, a Mumbai-based storytelling community, at The Retreat House in Bandra West. I enjoyed participating in that workshop, and what struck me most was Bhandari’s facilitation style. I will touch upon specific aspects of it so that teachers reading might be able to pick up some ideas for their classrooms.

My fellow participants were educators, artists, entrepreneurs, activists, counsellors and other professionals. During our introductory circle, Bhandari remarked, “As we go around, I invite you to share your pronouns. This is a way of indicating how we want to be referred to. I consider this important because we cannot assume people’s gender identity based on appearance, especially if they are from the queer or trans community.” I wish more workshops in India begin to embrace this practice, not because it comes to us from the United States of America but due to the space it offers queer, trans, non-binary and genderfluid people to have their gender identities acknowledged and affirmed.

Bhandari has been writing, directing and performing as a member of the New York Neo-Futurists, a performance arts company off Broadway, and working as an instructor with an organization called The Moth that is dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. I appreciated their inputs on what might make a compelling story. Some of these elements included being authentic, identifying one’s main purpose for telling a story, understanding what one had to lose or gain in a story and letting the audience in on that, working with sensory details to help listeners connect with the story, focusing on moments rather than ideas, and being prepared to sit with one’s discomfort. I liked the fact that they drew our attention to the emotional aspect of storytelling instead of teaching about structure in a mechanical fashion that began with the exposition, moved on to the climax, and ended with the resolution.

This discussion between participants was followed by a writing prompt: “What are the changes that you’ve been through that have impacted how you view the world?” The answer had to be articulated in this format: “I used to be __________, and now I ____________.” We could come up with as many statements as we wanted to. Bhandari wanted the exercise to be a tool that would show us how we as individuals have changed over time, and this realization could be a potential source of stories to develop and share. They gave us an example to get us started: “I used to be someone who wanted to leave my mark on the world, and now I just want to do no harm.” I wrote: “I used to be a goody two shoes kind of person, and now I am not so obsessed with being liked.”

Before fleshing out our personal stories, we had a conversation about ‘community agreements’ that would guide our interaction with each other as group members. We committed to offer the gift of attention, treat every person with respect, honour individual life choices, resist the temptation to talk down to someone or give unsolicited advice, watch our biases come up, and remember that it was alright to opt out of any activity that felt unsafe. “I encourage you to challenge yourself but on your own terms. You know yourself better than anyone else here, so choose what you need to work on,” said Bhandari. Is this something you would like to explore with your students?

We were asked to make a list of moments in our lives that stand out as special because something in us transformed as a result of what happened. Immediately after, Bhandari shared some guidelines to help us with detailing: 1. What was your world like before this story? What did you understand as true? Who were you, and what do we need to know about that person? 2. How does your story begin? What happens to set everything in motion? What is a scene that you can really pull your audience into? 3. What are your stakes? How did you realize what was going on around you was important? What are the things that happened that changed the dynamic of your story? 4. What is the moment that really created a shift in you? How did you feel in that moment, and what caused a shift? 5. How does the world look now in comparison to the start of the story? What do we need to know about the world you live in now?

Bhandari also spent some time talking about how storytellers can use sensory details to make their audience feel more intimately involved in the story being told. They asked us to mentally inhabit the moment we were thinking about, and note down what it looked like, smelt like, tasted like, sounded like, felt like (physically) and felt like (emotionally). I had underestimated how useful this visualization exercise can be when one is faced with a block. It helped me reconnect with the feelings of vulnerability and tenderness that I had experienced during the original event. This recollection certainly enriched my story.

Once we were ready to tell our stories, Bhandari had some thoughtful suggestions about the process of giving feedback. They wanted us to begin by asking the storyteller how it felt to tell that story, then follow up with specific points of appreciation about moments that were memorable or language that resonated or feelings that were evoked, and conclude by articulating what one felt curious about while hearing the story or what one would have loved to know more about. These guidelines took the stress out of the situation, and made the workshop environment safe and welcoming. Using such frameworks of peer feedback can go a long way in building trust, cooperation and friendship in our classrooms so that students learn to work together instead of being adversaries trying to outsmart each other and win the teacher’s favour. What do you think?

The author is a writer, educator and researcher with an M.Phil. in English Language Education. He can be reached at [email protected].

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