story-telling

Brain-Picking Becky #13: How We Tell (and Edit) Our Stories

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the micro memoir. I’m a wordy writer (and person in general), and I typically fall victim to over-explaining my ideas in an effort to be extra sure that what I’m trying to say is understood. This often results in clunky sentences and unnecessary repetition, not to mention how time-consuming it is. When I edit both my fiction and nonfiction, I try hard to channel my inner Hemingway and delete, delete, delete. Focus on the power of what is left unsaid. Except I’m bad at leaving things unsaid.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about the way we tell our stories, the choices we make when it comes to mood and tone, the language we use silently in our minds versus the language we share with our mouths and our fingers. So much of how we see the world, our place in it, ourselves in general, is our own choice, and this is so deeply affected by the way we frame our own stories. Yet how much of this framing really is our choice? How much of our personal narrative comes from our parents, their parents, and their parents? How much comes from early childhood memories we don’t remember but feel like we remember because our family has remembered them for us? From our genetic makeup, from the makeup of our neighborhoods, from the makeup we put on before we go out into the world?

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Last year, Lew loved the ocean water. He would run into it and shout with glee, jump, splash, run away, run back. This summer, he is two-years-old and has developed the capacity to fear. Now when he goes close to the water, he freezes and screams, partly playful, mostly afraid. He loves it when I carry him in, he’ll beg me to go deep enough that the waves splash against his delicious round belly, yet he clings to me so tightly that I can let go of him and he doesn’t even slip down my torso. The other day, as he and I were digging holes in the sand and filling them up again, my friend asked me if Lew liked the water and I said, “Oh he loves it but he’s also scared of it. It’s a new development this year, I hope it doesn’t last long.” Later that afternoon, Lew and I walked to the shore hand-in-hand and then right when we approached the ocean’s edge, he stopped, scrunched his nose and eyes together, reached his arms to me and cried, “Mommy, up, up, I scared of ocean water!” He had never used the word scared before.

In thinking about my story, Lew’s story, the story of my family and the tiny pieces that come together to make up these stories, I am deeply grateful for all the things I get to experience. Yet at the same time, I am deeply exhausted. An editor might say that my story is going in too many directions and needs to be pared down.

Leave more unsaid.

I’m reminded of Rivka Galchen’s book Little Labors, a beautiful, unique collection of short essays about new motherhood. I feel like these snippets, these micro memoirs, capture the reality of our existence so well. In the end, isn’t life really just little pieces of memory put together and called a whole?

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Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

We the People: Meet Whitney

whitneyName: Whitney Walker
Age: 23
Lives In: Auburn, Alabama
Ethnicity: European
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: Butter Pecan

“Vet school is really hard but I like it, it’s interesting. Apparently, though, vets have a higher rate of suicide than any other profession. It’s Wellness Week here so they were handing out suicide prevention stickers today, and an email they sent said that one in six veterinarians will consider suicide. That’s nuts. An article popped up in my Facebook feed, I don’t know how credible it was, but it was talking about how when an animal comes in that’s really sick or can’t be cured and you can’t make it better, you euthanize it, you go ahead and put it out of its misery, and the article said that vets might associate that with their own life when they have a problem that they feel like they can’t fix. If I were an animal, this is how I would fix it. The article also attributed it to the stress. People don’t take the time out of their day to call someone and tell them they did a good job. People just don’t do that. They only call to complain, so if you’re taking care of someone’s animal that means the world to them and it didn’t go the way they wanted it to, that can be stressful. I luckily haven’t had to do it yet; it will definitely be the hardest part of the job.

whitneyelephants.jpgThe work I did in South Africa was kind of boring, to be honest. It was interesting to me because I got to do it in Africa, but the whole point of it was that trees were dying off and not coming back. I did preliminary research to see if it was worth investing more. Elephants can knock a tree down pretty easily, and they also smack their trunks against the trees and rip the bark off. If there’s a circle of missing bark, the tree will die. So, we set these traps to catch rodents to get an idea of what types of rodents were there and what densities, then we put them in enclosures to give them seeds and see if they would eat them because people were saying that rodents were eating the seeds and preventing new trees from growing. We mainly caught mice, rat and squirrels. It’s funny, when you think of Africa, people want to research lions, buffalo, rhino, not really the rodents. But what we found with the seed trials is that they do eat some of the seeds, so you can’t definitively say that they are eating enough seeds and that’s why the trees aren’t growing, but really it’s like, we did the research, they eat the seeds, it’s worth looking more into. It was really cool to be there. The first two weeks were not research, I was there on a study abroad course. We went around with a game capture specialist and caught buffalo, giraffe, we moved animals that’d been sold, it was really cool. Sometimes they relocate rhino, too, since they’re heavily poached. So, the first two weeks we were actually staying in tents. Sometimes you could hear animals walking around or a lion roaring way off in the distance. It was cool, but the scary part was if you had to go to the bathroom at night. But when I did the research, I stayed in a house. It was pretty cool to see everything and how they do it all.

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Ideally, I would like to work in some type of wildlife rehab place or a zoo. At Auburn, experience with that is pretty limited – we don’t have a huge wildlife program, you have to get it in bits and pieces and then apply for internships and stuff like that. In one of my classes, we work hands on, one week we alternate and work with dogs and then the next week with cows. I was actually surprised by how much I liked working with the cow. It’s easier because whenever you’re working with cows, they’ve usually been brought up to a barn with their head in these metal bars so they can’t walk away from you. It’s more relaxing out in a barn, less stressful. With dogs, you can get an aggressive dog who tries to bite you, bite your techs, you sometimes have to muzzle it or even sedate it, so that can be dramatic. Cows can get stressed out, too, but it was easier. I liked it, but I wouldn’t want to just work with cows… It can be pretty hard to get into zoo medicine, so my back up is to work in a regular small animal clinic. I would want to get board certified in exotics so that I could work with birds, small animals like chinchillas; really anything other than a dog or a cat can be considered exotic. I mean, you don’t have to be board certified to see a rabbit, but if someone brought in a sick squirrel or something, that would be fun. So, we’ll see where it goes!”

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Welcome to We the People, a column featuring stories and profiles of your fellow Americans because we the people of the United States need to meet one another. Click here to learn more.

We the People: Meet Alma

granny-1Name: Alma Massey
Age: 91
Lives in: Mt. Washington, KY
Ethnicity: English, Cherokee
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: Chocolate

“I remember Henry Reynolds – he owned the farm – and that’s where I was born. There was a lady my mom knew that helped her when I was born so they named me after her. I never inquired about where she was from but I did always think it was a peculiar name.

By the time I was eight- or- nine-years-old, I was helping to set plants and so on. When the two oldest boys left, I guess I must have been fourteen, I started milkin’ the cows and helpin’ out with the other animals. And well, if we wanted a chicken to eat then someone had to go kill one. I didn’t always have to do it – the other boys helped with most of it – and we didn’t have one very often. But I took care of ’em, fed ‘em every night, so I did have to get one a few times. You had to catch hold of its neck, grab ahold of it real tight with your finger and thumb and then wring it around and around until about the third time when its head would pop off. It didn’t take much for the head to come off. It wasn’t too messy – most of the time it would just go floppin’ on the ground. I don’t remember ever liking the brains. The other kids did. My older sister, Helen, loved to eat ‘em with scrambled eggs. But I never wanted them – I don’t know why but it just didn’t feel right.

grannyheleninjailPretty much every time there was something to do, I was out there with the boys. Settin’ the tabacca and all. We’d set the plants out, battle the worms, and then pick the leaves later on. It was a pleasant life, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed just livin’, the time, that’s all.

My brother, Elman, he’d play the guitar and Helen would sing. My grandfather and my uncle played the fiddle, all the time, every day. Yep, they enjoyed it. I liked listening to it until it went on long enough, but now I’d give anything to hear it again. They played well, they really knew how to play. When it was pretty outside, they’d be on the porch, but a lot of times they’d be in the house playing. I never did play for real. I used to chord the guitar and sing, but that wasn’t much, you know. Elman could play the guitar really well.

I hadn’t really thought about my favorite part of working on the farm. But the Bill Monroe concert was a big event. We all had a big time there. He was a favorite for a long time. They came to the school and played, if I remember right. It didn’t cost much, maybe a fifth or sixth of what it would be now, you know, just a few dollars. I got to go with Elman and Helen and it really was one of the best nights of our lives.”

Welcome to We the People, a column featuring stories and profiles of your fellow Americans because we the people of the United States need to meet one another. Click here to learn more.

We the People: Meet Nozim

nozimName: Nozim Bakhriddinov
Age: 36
Lives in: Brooklyn, NY
Ethnicity: Uzbek
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: Pear and Melon

I moved to NYC to realize my dreams of getting an education in art and of speaking English. Moving to New York was really very fast for me. I made a decision and approximately one month before leaving, I sent a letter to my old friend from college, Aziz, with some questions about life in NYC. He said, “I don’t know, but let’s do it together.” At that time he was living in Cincinnati and planning to change location, too. He arrived in New York about three weeks before me, and we agreed that he’d meet me at the airport and let me stay in his apartment for a few days. But when I got here, I was surprised to learn that I needed to fill out an address of where I was going to stay during my visit or I couldn’t enter the country (I came here with a tourist visa and then changed my status later). My cell phone had no internet connection and I didn’t know how to ask about addresses. The immigrations officer said that he couldn’t let me in until I filled it out, but he called a colleague over to help me. The officer was young and thin with kind eyes. He gave me his phone and finally, I was talking with my friend. Now here I am studying English, working as a pastry chef, and making my art in Brooklyn.

Welcome to We the People, a column featuring stories and profiles of your fellow Americans because we the people of the United States need to meet one another. Click here to learn more.

We the People

We Americans make a lot of assumptions about “the other.” Even though it is truly impossible to understand what every person in this country is like, we continue to operate under the idea that we can group ourselves into categories like liberal and conservative or Christian and Muslim or black and white and suddenly make sense out of everything. But really, these labels and assumptions have not helped us make sense out of anything. Instead, they’ve brought us to a present reality filled with extreme division, anger and violence.

ropePart of the problem is that we just don’t know each other. It’s easy to develop false ideas about people you’ve never actually seen or heard. But if we want anything to change, then we have to let go of old stereotypes and learn for ourselves what the people of this country are actually like. Of course we’ll have our differences, but we shouldn’t be afraid of them, we shouldn’t avoid them. Instead, we should find our commonalities and celebrate our shared humanness while also embracing and relishing in our differences. We are all people made of flesh and bones and hearts and brains, feelings and thoughts, dreams and struggles. It’s time to conquer our collective fear and accept one another for who we are: equal citizens of a huge, beautiful and diverse country named for its unity. So please, allow me introduce you.