You are currently browsing all posts tagged with 'storytelling'.
Displaying 1 - 3 of 3 entries.

The Story I Am Telling

  • Posted on July 8, 2013 at 8:00 PM

My new office is in my mother’s house, so she’s often there when I release a progress report on my recent work session, which I’ve been doing on my social media sites. A few days ago, after releasing a report, I came upstairs and my mother greeted me with, “You’ve finished another chapter! Great! Congratulations!”

That started a conversation about the book I am writing and I decided to share a chapter with her. She was effusive with her praise, as mothers are prone to be, and then said something that caught my attention.

“Well, you need to tell where Willy was in order to show how far he’s come.”

I processed this for a moment. No doubt I was shaking my head from the start. Still, it took me a while to come up with the words that went with the denial.

“I’m not writing Willy’s story. It’s my story. It’s not about the boys. It’s about me. It’s about what I did with it.”

This is an important distinction.

I write about my children. I write about them a lot. But I’m never telling their story, because their story must be told through the way they process the experiences they have. I don’t presume to get inside their head and voice what’s in there. I tell my story. I tell my story as a parent. I tell my story as someone who is neurologically different, but not diagnosably autistic. I tell my story as someone who had to learn to advocate for my children.

And that is the crux of this book. Going into this whole autism thing, I had no idea what I was doing or what I was dealing with. I’ve read a lot of stories from parents who took charge from the get-go, but I wasn’t one of them. Based on the people I’ve talked to, most of us weren’t one of them. So, on the one hand, I’m telling my story for those parents who don’t know what to do when they start out.

More than that, the place that I went is also different than the norm, because I am different from the norm. So, I’m telling my story for all those parents who don’t jump on the I’ll-do-anything-to-cure-my-child’s-autism bandwagon.

My children are central characters in my story, but this is my story. It’s not because I’m arrogant. I certainly don’t think I’m more important than my children. But I can’t tell their story. I can only tell my story, because I am only in my head, processing my experiences. If I were telling “their” story, it would be fiction, not memoir, because I’d be making unknowable assumptions on what they were experiencing. Furthermore, I am telling my story because I believe (and I’m not alone in this) that telling my story will be a service to others, particularly a service to parents who want to serve their children.

Someday maybe my children will tell their own story. It may not be in words, though, but that’s part of the point. Me, I will tell my story, and I’ll tell it in words, because that’s the story I have the authority to tell.

Picking Up the “Oops!”

  • Posted on February 5, 2011 at 10:00 PM

When I first started studying how to be a parent, I read a lot of claims regarding the importance of monitoring, limiting, or disallowing television and video watching.  However, when Willy first started talking again after his regression, he picked up many of his first words from his favorite Thomas the Tank Engine videos.  Later, Alex picked up words from Veggie Tales videos.  Now, Ben is doing it, though he watches a much larger variety of shows—his viewing habits are far less rigid.  Like Willy, Ben is also picking up gestures and facial expressions from the shows he watches.

Mostly, despite the expert advice, I encourage this.  In our experience the boys picked up more words (at least, in the beginning) from their intense video watching than they did from their intense therapies.  They also had fun and picked up other things.  Alex, for example, likes to reinterpret Veggie Tales images in his own art.

But, now Ben’s picked up something I rather dislike.  In one of his shows, one of the characters spills something in dramatic fashion.  In the show it is an accident.  “Oops!  Sorry,” the character says.  Ben recreates this scene with growing frequency—and for Ben, it is no accident.

He gets the spill part.  He gets the “Oops!  Sorry!” part.  He doesn’t get the accident part.  To him, it is a fun, dramatic scene with big movement, emotive expressions, and funny reactions.  It’s a fun role to play—for him.  Not so for Mark and me; we have to clean up the mess.  We’ve even made Ben help—which is a chore by itself, since cleaning up is not so fun and dramatic as spilling is—but he continues to do it.  And he still doesn’t get the accident part.

Now, this could be just another frustration that we experience as parents, but over the years of raising my children with autism I’ve noticed a disturbing pattern.  Like Ben, Willy picks up on certain aspects of stories at the exclusion of what “we” consider important.  Willy reads books for class, and his summaries and book reports have more to do with the things he found engaging and less to do with themes or the point of the book.  “What is this story about?” is a question that gives Willy great difficulties.  He gets so caught up in the details that he doesn’t see the big picture, so his answers are about those things that caught his interest, not what the book is actually about.

From a teaching perspective, there’s this sense that they’re missing the point.  The point of the spill, after all, isn’t how fun it is to spill things or how enjoyable it can be to reenact dramatic moments.  It’s about accidents, forgiveness, and taking responsibility.  Ben misses that.  From a teaching perspective, Willy’s focus on a particular image or scene, at the exclusion of the point of the book, is a mistake.  He’s focusing on the wrong thing.

Or so the teachers say.  As a writer and storyteller, I’m inclined to agree.

But…isn’t the richness of art that there is something for everyone, or so the artist hopes?  Isn’t the point that there is more in any work of art than the artist intends, because the audience brings their own realm of experience to the work?  Isn’t that part of it, too?  So, why do my boys’ interpretations get dismissed as wrong?  Don’t their observations matter?  Sure, it’s a different focus than the general population, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

I believe in teaching the boys to see the point of a story—or, rather, the point as it was intended.  But I worry that teaching this skill—the ability to think about the story as a whole—is being done at an exclusion of respecting their way of seeing the world.  And that worries me.

I wonder how I can teach my boys to see the point as it was intended without disrespecting their attention to details and their own interpretations of works of art.  It’s so easy for me, as a writer and a student of stories, to say to Willy, “That’s the wrong answer.  The point of the story is…”  But saying that is the wrong answer.  How do I communicate in a simple, direct way that—while I appreciate his observations and there is room for him to share them—there are expectations that need to be met to satisfy his assignments?  How do I teach him to see the whole, without taking away the pleasure he gets from the details?

The Black Balloon: A Review

  • Posted on June 4, 2010 at 2:10 AM

The Black Balloon is an award-winning Australian movie that is, on the surface, one portrayal of autism through a non-autistic brother’s point of view.

When taking The Black Balloon with that premise in mind, it’s a movie I found to be both honest and challenging.  The movie takes risks, which I like from an artistic standpoint.  It has a solid, not-too-subtle message of acceptance at its core, which I like from an advocacy standpoint.

If taken outside that premise the movie can be problematic.  This movie is biased.  Charlie, the brother with autism, is not the viewpoint character.  Nor is he the main character.  While he is not dehumanized, The Black Balloon does not tell Charlie’s story.  For some viewers that’s going to be frustrating.

At face value, Charlie seems to be “the problem” that the plot intends to solve.  Thomas, the non-autistic brother (also the viewpoint character and the main character), starts off the story seeing Charlie as the problem that needs to be solved.  This can be hard to watch.  There is violence between these brothers, which can be hard to watch.  There is violence between the parents and the children, which can be hard to watch.  Charlie’s autistic traits are emphasized to the point of stereotyping, which can be hard to watch.

But—and this is a very important but—that bias is not the movie-maker’s bias; it’s Thomas’ bias.  This movie is about transforming Thomas’ perceptions of his brother.  It’s about Thomas’ journey as he grows towards acceptance, reaches for understanding, and builds an appreciation for the person Charlie is.

If I had to classify The Black Balloon, I would not call it an “autism movie” or an “advocacy movie” or even a “prejudice movie,” though there are elements of all of that within this movie.  The Black Balloon is a coming-of-age movie, in which Thomas must come to terms with his brother as he is as part of growing up.  So, while there is stereotyping in the movie, it is because for most of the movie the viewpoint character sees his brother as his autism, not because that is how the movie-maker’s envisioned Charlie.

Another thing that makes this movie problematic is my concern that viewers who have no direct experience with autism might mistake this portrayal of one autistic character as a portrayal of autism as a whole.  Obviously no movie can do that, but that doesn’t stop people from internalizing a movie and using that movie as their basis for understanding. 

Yet, despite the hard-to-watch parts and the risks of further stereotyping, the movie resonates with me.  I have a great appreciation for the parents’ struggle to provide opportunities for both their children.  I have a great appreciation for the mistakes the parents make.  I have an appreciation for Thomas’ struggle to come to terms with his own life and all the people within it.  And I have a great appreciation for the subtle way the movie-makers showed Charlie as an outsider looking in, even within his own family.  I liked how they showed that there was a person behind the stereotype—a person who wanted very much to be included in his brother’s life and for his brother to take part in his life.

Overall, I would consider the movie to be very well-done.  It’s a story with a point, but the focus was on telling the story, not on telling the point—which is very much appropriate.