Returning to Stories

It’s that time of year when scholarship applications come due, which has given me an opportunity to revisit parts of my own story as it has evolved over the course of my adulthood. In some ways, my work has been closely tied to storytelling ever since my early years at Michigan State, where I co-founded a queer student magazine that emphasized first-person writing and thought-provoking conversations about people’s true lives and experiences. That experience came in handy over my career as I moved from publishing (not what I thought it would be) to social work and community organizing. At different points in my work I’ve had opportunities to use storytelling as a strategy for building programs and/or participation. For a while I was able to re-create the magazine format for an HIV prevention publication, which brought to light rich stories about participants’ lives, their struggles, and their self-conceptions of being queer, sexually active adults in a complicated, sometimes contrarian society. Eventually, though, the emphasis shifted as I was asked to do more formal work like grant writing, often using formulaic templates that the agency had copied and resubmitted as rote for several years.

Recently I was looking back on a scholarship application I submitted a couple years ago, while I was still working for that particular nonprofit. I didn’t receive any funding from this program, and in retrospect I see why. My responses to the essay question, while not bad, were also not terribly compelling. I’d written a laundry list of my achievements similar to the formula I saw my agency use for those fairly rote, mundane grant proposals. Reading through that essay again, I saw that it lacked a story, a meaningful narrative that traced my growth and development over time. There was no sense of past struggles, transformation, or self-revelations, only “I have accomplished this, and your money will help me do this…”

In my experience, the power of a story comes from the key moment when we find ourselves in someone’s narrative—being able to relate to the challenges presented, locate our feelings and do a self-appraisal, and then weigh the plausibility of the resolution (if it’s even achieved). When it comes to grants and scholarships, I think the key question for review committees would be whether the story presented is compelling enough for them to commit their funder’s resources, i.e. seeing a fit for themselves in the story. In research, I think it’s similar in that we are again trying to convey the investigation’s story in a way that demonstrates transparency and plausibility—the leaps we make in drawing conclusions have to be grounded in the best evidence available. Interestingly, as I barrel toward starting my dissertation I find myself returning to the essence of storytelling as the core focus of my work. While I’m not sure I really strayed too far from this endeavor, I know that for a while I felt too caught up in following the technical conventions of work and school to really see how essential these elements have always been to my work.

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A Saturday Afternoon, in January, in Minnesota

I’ll write more soon, but wanted to share these photos from our afternoon hike. We’ve had a decent reprieve from the more severe temperatures this weekend, leading to some lovely, bright winter afternoons. Being out on a frozen lake with our dog, not another sound to disturb us, has enormous appeal.

 

Zuzu on ice

Zuzu on ice

Take only photos, leave only footprints.

Take only photos, leave only footprints.

Hard to believe this is on the edge of a city.

Hard to believe this is on the edge of a city.

The Good Year

Ever since 2008, Jaxon and I have kept the habit of giving each new year a broad theme, something that we hope to accomplish in the months ahead. It started after that perilous year when the economy crashed, and we had the first big financial scare of our partnered life together. We retroactively labeled 2008 the Year from Hell, due both to the loss of his business and four months unemployment, as well as the fact that between us and our families we lost six cherished pets, due either to old age or illness. Looking ahead, we labeled 2009 a year of stabilization, and by the end I had applied for my Ph.D. program. Then, 2010 became the year of transformation, as I started my program and began to transition out of my former job. Building on this theme, we labeled 2011 the year of growth, during which I left my old job entirely and jumped into the uncertain world of adjunct teaching to keep the bills paid. In 2012, our year of acceleration, I made steady progress, had one paper accepted for publication while another won an academic award, and passed my written exams, while Jaxon abandoned the paint store job that got him through the recession and restarted his own business. It hasn’t been without turbulence—at times exhausting and uncertain, as we’ve struggled to make ends meet. But, looking back as well as ahead, we’ve decided to name 2013 The Good Year.

 

Although I hate New Year’s resolutions, keeping a theme for the year has helped us frame our conversations, giving a bit of context to what we expect of ourselves. For me, the goals are to remain steady and get my dissertation proposal written and approved, while working to lose weight, keep seeking out new income sources, and building momentum for the books I would like to write post-dissertation. Meanwhile, Jaxon has weathered some of the early storms that come with launching (or relaunching) a business. Thanks to a dear friend, he has studio space to work in for a while, and some room to expand creatively beyond the faux finish and interior design work that can pay decently, but also get physically taxing and creatively monotonous. He needs to create, plain and simple, whether it be art, or space, or furniture, or some wonderful combination of these elements.  More significantly, we’ve both agreed that how he builds his business this time needs to be based on the quality of relationship he can build with people, who understand and seek out a more reciprocal relationship with an artist and/or designer. By this I mean, people who are less concerned with negotiating down to the last penny of a deal, and more open to working with someone over time, maybe first on smaller projects but maintaining a line of communication, as well as empathy and creative exchanges. I think that in older times, Jaxon would more easily fit the definition of an artisan or craftsman, who would maintain relationships with a few important patrons and produce custom works. It’s hard to do that in the modern economy, when mass production and cheap labor more or less rule the consumer market and force niche artists like him to undercut the value of their own time and efforts.

 

What this means for The Good Year has yet to be seen. Although I’m cautiously optimistic, a number of other factors need to come together, including this tepid economy and the continued good health of our pets and household. The only way to find out will be to live the damn thing. Right?