Guest Post: “Meaning” — what Ann Hedreen thought of my SALu lecture

[Writer Ann Hedreen attended my SALu Storyteller Uprising lecture on February 9th, and contacted me later to share her thoughts about the lecture, posted originally to her Restless Nest blog.  Here’s what Ann wrote:]

Scrawled in fat black Sharpie script on the inside door of a blue bathroom stall at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus: What are you living for?

My first reaction was to laugh: a sort of nervous-recognition laugh.  It’s been a rough week for me, big-question-wise.

Then I thought, as I sat: OK, how would I answer that in one word or less?  What am I living for?

God?  No.  I wish, but it wouldn’t be honest.  I am a seeker, but a highly distractible one.

Love?  Yes, but—well, that’s always it with love, isn’t it?  Yes, but.

Meaning, I thought.  That’s it.  That’s what I am living for: meaning.

I was at Kane Hall on this winter Wednesday night to see a lecture called “Storyteller Uprising: Trust and Persuasion in the Digital Age.”  The speaker was Hanson Hosein, the director of a UW graduate program called MCDM, which may look like a Roman numeral but in fact stands for the Masters of Communication in Digital Media.

I had been receiving emails about the lecture, which is kicking off the Seattle Arts & Lectures’ 2011 Wednesday University series—recently retitled “SAL U.”  (MCDM, SAL U… acronyms: making a comeback?)  I had looked up Hosein online a few weeks ago and thought about going.  But my husband is taking a Spanish class on Wednesdays and we only have one car and we’re 11 miles south of the UW campus, as the crow flies.

And then this week hit, like a ton of bricks.

A ton of what bricks in particular, you might ask?  That’s the shame of it.  If you ran into me at the grocery store and asked me how I was doing, I would say “Fine,” and it would be an honest response.  Work is going well.  Children: doing well in college.  Marriage: loving, good, sweet.  Health: great.

The brick wall of despair that I have been running into, lately, from time to time, is about meaning.   And it’s about storytelling, trust, persuasion and the digital age, which is why I figured I better go hear what Hosein had to say.

I was going to take the bus, but Rustin suggested I drop him at Spanish and take the car.  Easy!

So there I was in the bathroom at Kane Hall.  And it did tickle my funny bone that I happened to have picked this paint-chipped stall on this particular Wednesday night, in the middle of a week of staring down the exact question posed by the door: what I was living for.  Whether my own love of writing, of storytelling, is in fact what gives my life meaning or whether it is a miserable curse.

Meaning, I repeated to myself, like a mantra, as I walked into the bright hall. Hosein’s title was there to greet me, splashed on the big lecture-hall screen in an invitingly casual font.  Storyteller Uprising.  I felt an altar-call kind of a thrill.   I wanted to be part of such an uprising, even though I still didn’t know quite what it was.

Like Hosein, I come from a traditional media background—broadcast news, public relations, documentary film.  Unlike Hosein, who plunged from news and film  into a deep exploration of digital media, I went back to school and got an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College’s wonderful low-residency program.  I wanted less technology—pencil, paper, words on pages—not more.

I wrote a thesis memoir about my mother called Her Beautiful Brain, about her remarkable life and her heartbreaking death from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.   For my teaching practicum, I taught memoir to 8th graders at a public school where nearly all the students are low-income and nonwhite.   In my critical work, I focused on memoirs with strong faith-and-meaning themes and later on memoirs by international writers.  I loved it all.   And now I have an agent, who thinks there’s a chance my manuscript will become a book.

But as I listened to Hosein, I realized that my whole experience—the MFA, the classroom teaching, the critical papers, the manuscript that I fervently hope will become a book—was so, so Twentieth Century.   And on one level, I’m fine with that.  I love to write and for two years, I wrote, working with advisors and peers who helped me to refine, shape, focus and direct my raw writing-love.  And I got a chance to learn that I too enjoy advising newer writers, especially very young and fragile ones.   Best of all, I learned that I could write a whole book while still earning a living making films for non-profits with my husband.

But now I’m facing the part where, like so many writers before me, I try to take what has been a very personally meaningful experience and, as Hosein put it, “convince people to transact with my content in a way that justifies my effort.”

Transact with my content.  Wow.

I worried, as I scribbled notes (the old-fashioned way) while Hosein spoke, that I might get left in the dust by a phrase like “transact with my content.”  But then he started talking about story and community and how telling stories builds trust, how stories are replacing the “passive, one-way communication” implied by the old PR word “message” and becoming the coin of the digital realm, how telling stories is not new at all, in fact it’s what people have always done—and I thought yes, yes, that’s me, that’s what I’ve done, I’ve told my story!

The problem is that it exists in the form of a manuscript which no one is reading and which my agent says will be a “hard sell” because it is about, among other things, Alzheimer’s disease.  But when she talks about hard sell, she’s talking about the traditional big publishing houses.  Would Hosein tell me that they are all So Twentieth Century?  That I should just forget about them and find some other way to get people to transact with my content?

Meanwhile, he was galloping onward, riffing on how the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were inspired by stories and on the enduring power of Aristotle’s story structure and on a quote from child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel: “Our shared stories create a connection to others that builds a sense of belonging to a particular community.”

I do believe my story, when shared, will connect with others.  That it will help build a sense of belonging to a particular community: the community of who knows how many millions of people who are trying, as my siblings and I did, to raise their children and keep their jobs and find meaning while taking care of a crumbling parent or spouse.

But how to make that connection: that is the question.

The brick wall of despair into which I crashed this week is one that many writers and filmmakers and artists know well.  It’s the brick wall that we are sure would magically fall away if only we knew the secret password.  Because, you see,  it’s a wall controlled by gatekeepers, or so we think.   In the traditional, 20th Century world, agents are gatekeepers.  Their job is to persuade publishers and producers and gallery-owners to trust: this filmmaker, this artist, this storyteller.

It was so thrilling to see in my email inbox the words, “I want to represent your book,” because I thought it meant I’d finally get through the brick wall.  But it hasn’t meant that at all.  I don’t know when my agent might start pitching my book.  I know she’s very busy.  Her list of authors is long and I’m nowhere near the top of it yet.   I asked her how I could help and she suggested that, since Rus and I have the tools, we should produce an author video, which we did, and which I’m sharing here in the Storyteller Uprising spirit.

Part of me is tempted, after listening to Hosein, to publish Her Beautiful Brain online, a chapter at a time, perhaps, and connect to readers via Facebook groups, email lists, whatever I can think of.  Just put it out there.  Forget about getting reviewed or paid or hailed by the literary powers-that-be.  Just… connect.

(On Hosein’s blogsite, you can download a 31-page, e-book version of Storyteller Uprising: Trust and Persuasion in the Digital Age.  For free.)

Patience, you might counsel.  Two months isn’t so long.  Give that hard-working agent a chance!  This despair you feel: might it not be just as much about your lovely children flying the nest right when you finished the MFA program as it is about whether you’ll ever get your book published?

Yes to all.

And yet: Hosein is on to something interesting.  In the 20th century, gatekeepers controlled our storytelling landscape.  The digital revolution has opened those gates, but it’s released a tidal wave.  We’re flailing, writers and agents and publishers and digital doyens alike.

Maybe what we all need are boats: sturdy little lifeboats, beacons in the digital surf, that can hold a few people who sincerely want to hear each others’ stories.  Sometimes, these boats will cluster into flotillas, sharing routes and provisions; comparing notes.  Other times, there will just be one or two or three, traveling more slowly, discovering secret coves.

But we’ll all be rowing towards shores of meaning that we can’t even see yet.

At the end of the evening in Kane Hall, an audience member asked Hosein to compare the impact of what’s going on now to the invention of the printing press.

He demurred.

Too soon, he said.  Way too soon.


  1. I love to poetry and imagery of this post — and of course the content. Sometimes I forget that there are plenty of other people out there also trying to making meaning of their worlds. I loved the visual of many sturdy lifeboats making their way through the tidal wave that is the digital world. As an MCDM student I feel a little embarrassed to admit that as much as I am fascinated by the Twitter-Facebook-YouTube-go go gadget world we now live in (and in my case, work in) I am also overwhelmed by it. There is a wealth of information out there — sometimes I want it all, and sometimes I am so overwhelmed I want none of it. But I am grateful for the real friendships that have formed from digital connections, and for the stories that I’ve heard and been able to share in that space. And as I work to stay afloat, I am excited to see where I, and my occasional flotillas, are heading.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post. It’s comforting to know that there are so many unheard storytellers out there with something wonderful to share. It’s proof that no matter what, the story must be told to carry on our existence. We need eloquent stories to fill our heads with colorful visions. We need stories with bulk and substance. In this digital age where we are so crunched for time, we have been forced to make a statement in 140 characters or less in some cases. A statement does not seek to engage which is what good storytelling is all about. Deep, engaging, meaningful stories representing the voice of the community – that’s what I want to hear! The new media technologies have not been all bad as they can provide an inexpensive way for undiscovered talent to be noticed. I just hope that people continue to feel compelled to share their real life stories for many years to come.

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