STORYTELLER REFLECTION: THE STORY NEVER ENDS
Blog from Story Center written by Sue Wallingford
I went to my first StoryCenter digital storytelling workshop in August of 2014, at the old Lighthouse Writers Building in Denver. It was a summer I will not soon forget. I’d just learned of my sister’s diagnosis of stage four lung cancer, the same disease that had claimed my mother’s life barely a year before. I had recently returned from a month long service learning trip to Cambodia, where some of my students and I offered art therapy to women and children survivors of the sex trafficking industry. This is why I was at the workshop– to somehow put words and images to the experience of this trip, which had impacted me on so many levels.
As I listened to the other participants share the seeds of their stories on the first day, I became acutely aware of the story I was living in the moment, which I would one day also have to share. But at the time, I thought to myself, “Now is not that time.” I didn’t even talk about the grief that I was holding about my mom’s death and my sister’s impending death; I couldn’t make sense of it. I held my tears close, even while witnessing others share their painful stories of personal loss and grief. At that time, I was grateful for my pattern of denial, and the opportunity to put aside my grief and immerse myself instead in the story I was there to create.
As the weekend progressed and the stories unfolded, I was moved by the powerful nature of digital storytelling as a therapeutic art intervention. The stories themselves called for deep personal exploration, told and retold as photos, clips of video, and words found their way on storyboards in order to create a cohesive narrative. Feelings of frustration, doubt, and discomfort arose as we all navigated the technical challenges posed by this unfamiliar medium. Then, the final day arrived, and we were putting our finishing touches on our pieces. The clock ticked as we rushed to complete our videos in order to share them with the group. Not until we finally sat down did I realize the most important part of this process: to share and be witnessed by others as each of us told of the joys and struggles of our life’s journey.
My story from that weekend, entitled “Bits and Pieces,” not only describes a part of my experience working with the Cambodian people and survivors of sex trafficking, but also illustrates what the making of a digital story was like for me. Bits and pieces of what lies inside a deep and emotional experience of finding places in a story that becomes more than personal, because of its capacity to touch others. I left feeling profoundly grateful and inspired by this new form of expression.
In August 2015, almost a year to the date of the first workshop, I contacted StoryCenter facilitator Mary Ann McNair in hopes of hosting a workshop in my art therapy studio in Boulder. I knew it was time to tell my other story, the one I had so carefully held just a year before. I had taken my last trip to Cambodia, left a job position I’d held for 20 years, lost my sister to cancer, had a grandchild on the way, and had received my own diagnosis of lung cancer. By the grace of God, we found it early, and surgery was successful in removing it.
The story I created in this second workshop, “Life Goes On,” is in honor of my mother and sisters. It explores my struggle with nicotine addiction, and how this addiction, like others, is intergenerational and interwoven into the family system, causing misaligned dependence on substances as a means of finding connection– which we know in the end only leads to a path of dis-connect, destruction, and, potentially, death. The seduction of addiction becomes a member of the family, which, like the cancer it creates, slowly takes over and destroys the very organism it promises to love forever.
Victor Frankel said that life is about finding meaning, and I believe this is true. And perhaps in finding meaning, happiness and contentment will follow. The process that digital storytelling offers as an art form gives the creator an opportunity to find meaning in life’s journey. I know I’m not finished using this medium to express myself as I continue along my own journey, and I am happy I have found such a powerful way to do so.
The story never ends . . .
Sue Wallingford, MA, LPC, ATR-BC, is Chair and Associate faculty in the Mindfulness-based Transpersonal Counseling Program, at Naropa University’s Graduate School of Psychology. She is founder and director of the Boulder Art Therapy Collective, which offers a variety of art therapy services to the community, including individual and group art therapy, open studios, workshops, and trainings. In 2011, Sue, along with a group of her students, spearheaded the creation of a service-learning project bringing art therapy practices to international programs working towards social justice and human rights. Since then, she has led three service learning groups to Cambodia to train and work with the clinical teams of several organizations. In her spare time, you can find Sue in her studio, creating art. She is currently working on a set of mixed-media assemblages that explore the theme of transpersonal passages and portals. She plans to create another digital story as part of this work.