All the Stories That We (Were) Told

By Nora Benitt

Pixar’s Rules of Sto­ry­telling by Pro­found Whatever

Life writ­ing – which includes a wide spec­trum of sub-gen­res such as (auto)biography, mem­oir, let­ter, diary, (dig­i­tal) life sto­ries, and oral his­to­ries – has a long tra­di­tion in the U.S. and is becom­ing more and more pop­u­lar all over the world. An abun­dance of arti­facts com­piled by famous, semi-famous, and not-at-all-famous peo­ple fill pub­lic libraries, pri­vate book­shelves, research cen­ters, social media, hard dri­ves, and web­sites. And that’s actu­al­ly not even sur­pris­ing since writ­ing and/or talk­ing about our­selves is a deeply root­ed cul­tur­al prac­tice and comes very nat­u­ral­ly to most human beings. We do it all the time: We tell a sig­nif­i­cant some­one how our day was, we put togeth­er our résumé when apply­ing for a new job, we talk about child­hood mem­o­ries with sib­lings or a close friend. How­ev­er, talk­ing and writ­ing about our­selves in an aca­d­e­m­ic con­text and, to boot, in a for­eign lan­guage is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent story.

In the mid­dle of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, my col­league Sab­ri­na Völz and I asked stu­dents from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines in our class “Con­fronting Con­tem­po­rary Cul­ture: Life Writ­ing in The­o­ry and Prac­tice” to tell us their sto­ries. And they did! Even though the sem­i­nar had to take place online (not the ide­al pre­req­ui­site for cre­at­ing a safe space and an atmos­phere of mutu­al trust), we shared and dis­cussed many sto­ries – those of oth­er authors and our own. Giv­en that the lan­guage pro­fi­cien­cy lev­els of the stu­dents as well as their pri­or expe­ri­ences in cre­ative writ­ing and sto­ry­telling var­ied great­ly, the sem­i­nar raised chal­lenges on dif­fer­ent levels.

In their first grad­ed assign­ment, an oral pre­sen­ta­tion, the stu­dents spoke about their child­hood mem­o­ries guid­ed by select­ed items assem­bled in a shoe­box (Hal­let 2015: 5, “My Child­hood in a Box”). With cre­ativ­i­ty, imag­i­na­tion, and effort, the stu­dents turned their pre­sen­ta­tions into inspir­ing and mov­ing sto­ries, which often made us laugh, but also cry. In their writ­ten assign­ments, they com­posed nar­ra­tives about par­tic­u­lar aspects of their lives and iden­ti­ties. Some opt­ed for express­ing their sto­ries with words only, oth­ers cre­at­ed (autobio)graphic comics, which they either cre­at­ed with the help of soft­ware tools intro­duced in the sem­i­nar or drew man­u­al­ly (wow!).

Some sto­ries were stun­ning, some were stag­ger­ing. Oth­ers were some­where in between. The top­ics ranged from hard-to-digest mat­ters such as anx­i­ety, depres­sion, loss, eat­ing dis­or­der, and expe­ri­ences of micro-aggres­sions and racism all the way to light-heart­ed and humor­ous sto­ries of inter­cul­tur­al encoun­ters, inspir­ing tales of per­son­al growth and find­ing one’s true self. The sto­ries have some­thing in com­mon, though: they are authen­tic, they are worth being told, and they will hope­ful­ly be shared with others.

Thank­ful­ly, some of the stu­dents agreed to have their won­der­ful work pub­lished here. How­ev­er, you’ll have to wait until next week to read Johan­na Gabriela Hernán­dez Schäfer’s short iden­ti­ty nar­ra­tive, “50 Min­utes Make a Name,” inspired by Brown Girl Dream­ing by Jacque­line Wood­son. Lisann Rothe’s sto­ry, “An Ode to Berlin – And My Grand­moth­er” will fol­low on May 25. It tells a heart-warm­ing sto­ry about her rela­tion­ship to her grand­moth­er, their shared love for his­to­ry and beau­ti­ful Berlin. And final­ly, on June 1, Lena Hegemann’s graph­ic com­ing-of-age nar­ra­tive “Calm as the Ocean” will appear. Her beau­ti­ful­ly designed nar­ra­tive takes us on a trip to New Zealand – a trip that turns out to be one of self-discovery.

The sem­i­nar and the pieces show­cased here illus­trate how pro­duc­tive and reward­ing life writ­ing and sto­ry­telling can be – even in an edu­ca­tion­al con­text and a for­eign lan­guage. So, let’s agree that one day, baby, we’ll be old and think of all the sto­ries that we (were) told.

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Nora Benitt is a researcher and instruc­tor at the Insti­tute of Eng­lish Studies/Teaching Eng­lish as a For­eign Lan­guage at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg. Her research inter­ests include auto­bi­o­graph­ic speak­ing and writ­ing in the EFL class­room, learn­er texts as well as for­eign lan­guage teacher education.