By Madonna Hamel
I woke one morning from a dream that took some time to finish itself. I lay there until its residue burned away, like an early morning haze making way for a hot, dry summer day. The gist of the dream was this: stories don’t move in a straight line: they blossom, they bloom. Or they explode into space like a star. Or they scatter, like seeds, broadcast by the teller. They drop like a pebble into water and carry themselves outward on ripples.
For several years I worked as a “writer-broadcaster”. Every morning my job was to convince a radio team that I had a great idea for a story. Luckily, we were usually on the same page and off I’d go to a cheese tasting in an old munitions cellar, or the opening of another Quebec microbrewery, or an unveiling of a monument or a new exhibit. Sometimes the artists were hospital patients sometimes they were Inuit carvers. But always there was a story. Several stories in fact, competing for attention. I’ve interviewed grieving parents, weapons designers, children of slaves, cloistered nuns. I’ve talked to more musicians and athletes than I’ve had hot dinners. I’ve conversed with actors posing as major figures in the history of New France and with doctors explaining the science behind a new breakthrough. I’ve raced an American ambassador down a toboggan run (I lost). Some people, like Roseanne Cash or Harry Connick Jr., need no prodding – they are old pros at telling stories and give of themselves with humour, insight and aplomb. Others, like Celine Dion, will not come to the door even if you’re delivering poutine all the way from her home town (it was a dumb idea, I admit). Stephen Lewis and Romeo Dallaire will make you weep as the atrocities unfold before your eyes. All of them will have a story that needs and wants to be heard. My question was always: which one will I tell.
I remember Margaret Atwood once saying that as a book reviewer she believed there were so many good books in the world that if she found herself reading something that she didn’t like she’d rather just stop and pick up another one until she found something she was excited about and review it instead. I feel the same way, and not just about books.There is always a nugget, a piece of redeemable information or insight to be mined from the worst of assignments. In terms of being a writer-broadcaster, I could simply let the questionable guests dig their own grave. The tricky part with my job was that I had to record my experience on tape, rush back to the studio, dump the tape, listening for edit points, cut it into clips, script around the clips and then write questions for my host before 4 p.m. In all of the mad rush the challenge was to stay as true as I possibly could.
“The Story”, of course, is many stories. Which one do we tell? Which story is the most relevant to the listener? Which has the most appeal? The popular term when choosing stories is “sexy”, which has grown into meaning a combination of all kinds of things including intrigue, danger, luridness, illicitness and shock (which says a lot about our culture’s idea of sex). One day the executive director of the station called to say we should make the burgeoning prostitution ring in our area top priority because it was a ‘sexy story’. I was hosting at the time and managed to maneuver my way through the interview with a young woman who had extricated herself from the ring without making her story a form of creepy entertainment. I wouldn’t say her story was ‘sexy’, but it was gripping because her emotions were vibrating on the surface and extended out into the airwaves. Her story was palpable because she was able to take it back and own it. We didn’t package her story the way her pimp did.
It’s been a week of stories, and not all of them mine to tell. So when I find myself amidst a story in the making I always think, how do I tell this without misrepresenting someone, or telling on them, or saying something they’d rather not be known? What we tell says as much about us as our subject matter. I’m not about to report on split pants, word mispronunciations and trips on sidewalks, but I’ve known reporters that have had career advancements based on such things. And we all know how a stumble can wrongfully represent a politician as a clumsy oaf. I’m hazarding a guess we all love a story with a good punchline with an insight (or even a moral, void of moralizing)that contains a sense of common humanity and a dash of “there but for the grace of God go I”.
As much as I am interested in the stories we tell others; I am equally fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves stories to keep us alive, writes Joan Didion. “We are the story-telling animal” also means we are the self-aggrandizing, rationalizing, justifying,grudge-holding, case-building animal. We can record, rewind and replay an incident in our heads until it becomes an obvious and egregious act of violence perpetrated against us. We can, as I often do, gripe and moan: why me? We can carry a slight, perceived or otherwise, to the grave. And, as my friend Marylyn reminds me, that’s like drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to drop dead. When I find myself returning to the old “hurtin’ stories”, as I call them, she tactfully suggests: “you must be getting some kind of hit from it,” She could just say: “Oh quit whining”, but I’d just add the insult to my already over-flowing cup of injury. Hurt has an energy, a charge, a bittersweet flavour to it. You can get stuck in it so that it’s the only thing your radar only picks up on. You tune your station to the blues.
But any true bluesman or woman will tell you: the blues can heal too. The catharsis that comes from telling our stories, or hearing the stories of others is the busting open of secrets hidden and the tending to injuries sustained. In a good blues song the tragic story gets lifted out of its incapacitating torpor through rhythm. If you can work up a good sweat and sing along as well you’ve got a good shot at shaking off the heavy beast of a sad story, if even for a few moments. The year I lived in Memphis, a town with more than it’s share of grief – being the Home of the Blues, in the path of the Trail of Tears and the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot – I learned that I was ‘perfectly capable of falling apart”. Stuff happens, and we can’t stop it. But we can choose how we perceive it.
I met a man who talked about visiting his father in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Every week this man would drive three hours to be with his dad. He’d eat with him, sometimes shave him or take him for a walk, pushing his wheelchair to the garden and back. And every week he’d say a little prayer asking that his father acknowledge him as a good and dutiful son. One day, for some reason he asked that he be what his dad needed him to be, and not the other way around. And on that day his father thanked him for being the son he always loved. I asked him what changed? “I don’t think my father was any different”, he told me later. “I think I was different. It’s not a change in the things we see but in the way we see them.” It’s all a question of perspective.
It’s been a week of stories still blooming, still radiating outward, and not all of my making. I rolled out of bed early with every intention of telling stories but soon realized that even from my own perspective I’m not sure what’s mine to tell. I know it began with a spotted glass and ended with a bowl of strawberry rhubarb crumble. And somewhere inside it all a teenage girl quit her waitressing job, a grown woman got a lesson from a nine year old, four people stayed too long at a funeral reception, arrived late for the six-o’clock border crossing and ended up dining on fried chicken and drinking moscato in a Malta motel room. It was a week of three double shifts, a new garden, an encounter with a Buddhist nun, and a branding under a blazing sun. Some things went smoothly and others landed with a deafening kerplunk. It was a hot, dry week that demanded constant hydration, a week wherein I learned that: sometimes the glass is half-empty and sometimes the glass is half-full but I’m just happy to have a glass.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.