For the Friday morning all-genre writing workshop on May 17, 2019, host Stephen Kastner invited local writer, actor, and storyteller, Dennis McSorley, to stage a solo performance in the BWW studio.
With nothing but a chair for a prop, Dennis took us inside his early life, scene-by-scene, story-by-story, through his personal epic journey from sunny early childhood, through the totalitarian nuns and brothers of Catholic school, through his naive introduction to girls and kissing games, to an awakening regarding religious hypocrisy when no priest would support his “Thou shalt not kill” conscientious objector application at the draft board during the Vietnam war.
Superb use of detail, pacing, humorous self-disclosure, and a mixture of first person and close narrator-revealed characters, dialogue, and action kept workshop participants fascinated and vicariously involved throughout the hour. Then, we put Dennis in the box and discussed our feedback about him and his performance piece in the third person.
Dennis ended the stories of his younger life by telling us, “These experiences I’ve lived are who I am.”
Two days later, lying in my bed on a weekend morning, I began musing about how all of us who write are frequently exploring the back stories of our characters to understand and explain who they are. Whether we write fiction, nonfiction, songs, poems, plays, or tell spoken tales, as writers, artists, or creators we are all deeply enmeshed in revealing characters through action and interaction, past or present.
One core Buddhist philosophy, according to the Dalai Lama (The Universe in a Single Atom), holds that every action or event is preceded by a cause–the inverse of “one thing leads to another.” One thing was led to by another. Therapists will often ask us to talk about our childhood past to help us see how we got into whatever pickle we’re struggling with in the present.
Almost anything can be explained or understood if we know enough of its back story.
This raises some interesting questions, which might lead us to imagine new stories, though many would be much harder to write than the memories we’ve lived through. You know the You that was created by your parents, your teachers, your schoolmates, those experiences that were dramatic enough to be remembered for a lifetime, those painful failures and conflicts, your youthful naiveté as you learned about sex, work, and adult responsibilities. How has that You interacted with the Hims, Hers, and Thems of your subsequent life?
How did those Catholic or Jewish or WASPY teachers affect your adult relationships? How did your upbringing affect your political views? How did entering sexual adulthood with very little information or wisdom affect your love relationships? Have any lovers or friends pointed out in you some of the weird quirks you may have despised in your parents? How has that You interacted with those (whether through love, work, family, or friend) whose backstories made them seem so Other?
How do the backstories of all our fellow citizens explain our political gullibility, our cumulative support for wars and CIA assassinations of foreign leaders, 400 years of constantly evolving racism, the unquestioning support for capitalism, or universal assault weapons, or a market-driven healthcare system, or lobbyists? What backstories explain our civilization’s complacent life at two-minutes-before-midnight on the Doomsday Clock? Why are we so thrilled with our technical prowess at making thermonuclear bombs, developing artificial intelligence and CRISPR, yet so globally disinterested in the wisdom to solve overpopulation, environmental destruction, terrorism, or jingoistic governments?
I’m not tasking you with solving all these questions! Yet if they spark an idea in your head, I’d love to see what that idea sprouts into. As writers, we have unique opportunities to explore through fiction, the real world as we see it. We can write about difficult subjects that raise questions and provoke discussion. Whatever our chosen genre or form, we can turn stories about a single life into metaphors that awaken consciousness in ourselves and in readers.
Dennis McSorley explores and shares the stories that define who he has become. We are the story-loving species, the story-loving profession, always trying to explain creation–whether of the universe or of just a single life–in the details we notice, remember, imagine, embed, and reveal in the stories we write and share.