Storytelling and the Search for Self by Abby Holtzman

Abby Holtzman just graduated from Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts and will be attending Swarthmore College in the fall. The Drum was fascinated by her Senior Year Project on Storytelling and the Search for Self, and asked her to write about it for us.

High School, for me, was not the greatest thing since sliced bread. It was probably not even the second greatest. The thing that made it worthwhile, though, was the opportunity given to seniors to pursue an independent project during the second semester, with the option of leaving or auditing regular classes during fourth term.

At the beginning of the process, all I wanted was to discover who I was, in the precarious perch of adolescence, and also maybe understand time and memory and possibly read some Proust.

I ended up doing something very different – reading and writing about and falling in love with Kerouac’s On the Road, but more significantly, conducting 12 interviews with a diverse, group of subjects about books that changed their lives.  And then creating an “audio exhibit” of the recorded, edited interviews in my school library. And watching students file in, put on headphones, and become silent.

image by Abby Holtzman

But let me step back – my SYP, collectively, was about the connection between narrative and the creation of identity. After I wrote a lengthy, and frankly incomprehensible, paper about storytelling and self, I wanted to go a step further. I wanted to hear stories about stories – from real people. So I interviewed friends of friends at sunny kitchen tables and crowded living rooms. I sat with a woman at a nursing home for forty-five minutes, listening to her thoughts on everyone from Auden to E. B. White, quoting from memory, wearing a white nightgown on a white bed in a white room. I sat cross-legged on the floor of any empty classroom at night, listening to barefoot college students speak to the ceiling, saying wise things, one breaking out into an impromptu slam poem.  I shielded my recorder from the wind on a park bench, and held it close as a fellow student told me, between stutters, about his love of the djembe – storytelling, he said, without words.

People talked to me about Sleeping Freshman Never Lie and A Streetcar Named Desire. They used their hands to try to express to me just how incredible that book was, or that graphic novel.

These interviews, and the exhibit that contained their voices, is why The Drum in particular has kindly allowed me to usurp their weekly blog post: they help to demonstrate, I think, the power of stories out loud.

I have to say, though, it was that silence that really got me, rather than the noise. At the exhibit, when legs stopped swinging in those awful metal school chairs and backpacks dropped to the ground and a dozen voices murmured into twice as many ears and all I could hear was the whirring of the laptops set up in front of each student.

I still don’t know fully what it all meant – the paper, and the people, and all of those stories. All I can say is that the whole experience was meaningful to me not because of the independence of the project, but because of the connections it allowed me to make.

With Kerouac’s characters, late at night, in bed and on airplanes. With friends, frantically soliciting them for interviews and consolation and advice. With fellow SYP students and faculty. With the strangers who opened up to me and my recorder. With anyone who would listen for four months when all I talked about was this project. With the students who came to the exhibit and left their own stories, in colored pencil, on postcards or recorded in special “Share Your Story” booths I set up in separate rooms.

Because, after all, stories are transitive magic, and they are shared wisdom, and they are collective emotion. And when they are spoken and captured aloud, I think this becomes even more true.

Why, exactly, can listening sometimes be more powerful than reading?

For one thing, listening is a more active process than reading. To zone out for a few moments is to miss something essential. When we read, we can afford to let our eyes drift, to re-read phrases we find tender or poignant. When we listen, we are students, attuned to every syllable, hunting for meaning between the unique cadences of someone’s speech, waiting as word falls upon word, sometimes erratically, often interrupted by breaths and throat clearings, pauses and sighs, that are equally significant, equally heavy with import, as the words themselves.

For another thing, accents are awesome. In my project, there was Cheryl Tom, a Newton nanny, whose Caribbean, musical accentuation remains as a relic of her upbringing in Trinidad. There was Professor Richard Kearney, who quotes various philosophers from memory and reads aloud from James Joyce’s Ulysses in a delightful Irish lilt reminiscent of his hometown of Cork. Even the subjects without foreign connections brought their own vocal patterns – the sweet enunciation of a high school junior describing a family trip to India, the childish question-slanted sentences of one of her classmates as she relays the death of her mother in a voice that seems better suited to a campfire confessional. Then there’s my piano teacher of eleven years, a voice used to itself, a voice used most often to instruct over the noise of a wrong chord - the vestiges of Minnesotan vowels still clinging on.

Also, audio tends to get stuck in our heads in a way that is harder to achieve with the written word. Although the last, searing sentences of Amy Hempel’s short story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” still tend to echo around in my mind on sad days (“Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug”), the recording of a man’s first thoughts as he opens his medical results on This American Life somehow manages to secure itself a prime-time spot on repeat in my head days after I strain to hear him almost-crying.

Finally, I think, as NPR’s StoryCorps notes with the title of their 2007 book, listening really is an act of love. I think once people have trained themselves to truly listen, to be present, to focus on a stream of meaningful noise emanating from their earbuds or hipster headphones or whatever, they will begin to transfer this ability to real life, to the infinite number of stories that are waiting to be told every day.

Abby Holtzman is now in the process of founding an online, audio, literary magazine called Fledgling, geared towards people (most often adolescents) who are leaving home for the first time. It will include both fiction and non-fiction, stories aimed towards hopefully helping the recently un-moored touch down - metaphorically, of course. If you are interested in learning more about Fledgling, or participating in any way, please contact Abby at [email protected].



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