Unlocking Stories: The Work of Words Beyond Bars

StoryCenter Editor’s Note: Karen attended a StoryCenter Digital Storytelling Workshop last spring, in Denver, CO. We’re looking forward to continuing to support her work with incarcerated men and women. This is the story she brought to the workshop, the result of which is her video below.

After a rocky start, with plenty of naysayers breathing down my neck, I piloted the Words Beyond Bars program at Limon Correctional Facility, a vast teal and purple themed concrete and razor-wired Colorado prison complex. I sat in a circle in the visiting room with my first 12 participants wedged behind tables, with a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and a 79-cent composition book in front of them. The men exhibited empathy, wisdom and gratitude right from the start. Slightly mystified by my energy and encouragement, they shared their own stories of the burdens they carried.

At the age of 50, a proverbial fork in the road had appeared before me. I became miserably stuck and uncertain, while the passion I’d felt for my library career drained away with every hour I sat behind the reference desk. Always a “Plan B” type of person, I rallied by trying to access something in my future that I could feel passionate about. I trained as a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), and rebooted myself as an advocate for abused and neglected children. I supported public policy improvements for a woefully broken child protection system.

Fascinated and disturbed by our foster care system, I noticed the number of kids headed to prison. Still very much children, and right on the coattails of being emancipated by a system that had underserved them, too many of them turned to criminal behavior and found themselves incarcerated—for brutally long sentences, and occasionally for life.

I longed to get inside these prisons and connect with these kids labeled “JLWOPS,” juvenile lifers without possibility of parole. This was a new direction, and I had to figure out how to gain access to these young people by making myself useful in some way. What had I loved the most from my library days? Certainly it was the community book discussion groups: the conversation, the analysis, the sharing of opinions, and the camaraderie of experiencing a good read. That was it. I could bring all of that to incarcerated men and women, and share the gift of an unforgettable book.

The book magic had worked. The racial barriers softened, the conversation flowed, and I heard laughter—laughter not of shaming, but of relating. Seven years and hundreds of books later, we’re still reading. And when we meet every two weeks to explore a book and our lives, we’re telling our own stories, too.

This summer, I was introduced to StoryCenter and invited to participate in a three-day digital storytelling workshop. I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell, but I approached the opportunity with curiosity. I was feeling exhausted from all of my travelling to prisons to facilitate groups. I was forever short of funding and other support, and chronically troubled by the prison culture I was exposed to during every visit, but I grabbed a bag of almonds and a banana, and drove off to the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, in Denver. As if it were the first day of school, I dressed carefully, made sure I was on time, and I didn’t forget my laptop charger.

Sitting with the group of fellow workshop students that first morning, we took the risk of sharing our stories with each other in a Story Circle. We wrote and revised our draft scripts several times, mapping them out for the next step, when we would begin to fit the pieces together and bring them to life. So much of what works in this process seemed to hinge on what to leave out. Less is definitely more when it comes to a three-minute story.

By the end of the first day, there were tears and connections made through that truth serum I recognized as vulnerability. Close listening, relating, puzzlement, and questioning brought us together. Each person had their own memories, fears, and triggers, and we worked together to distill each of them into a deeply personal story. Our facilitators fed the joyfully intense process by guiding us towards making our scripts become fully dimensional and able to reach an audience through sparse narrative, but precise images and sounds.

By day three, our stories came to life, and we ate popcorn in a darkened room, savoring each other’s transformed stories as they appeared on the screen at the front of the room. I was already worried about having to say goodbye.

View Karen’s Story, “Darth Vader Clogs”

The impact of the workshop has expanded my vision of how storytelling can shift our understanding of the world and each other. For me, finally, the story of Words Beyond Bars became greater than the process of me simply talking. It was the clink of a chain-link fence, a perfect bit of background music, and a zoom into the faces of the book group guys. The depth and detail of my emotions could find light with just a few words. The script I’d pared down a dozen times with the help of Mary Ann and Holly. I recognized conflict, misgivings, attachment, and invisible boundaries in a three-minute story.

I watched my own story with a lump in my throat, thinking, I created this. I sat in that space, realizing that the struggle I’d been ignoring was that I was actually half in and half out of my nonprofit work, frustrated and suffering, with a touch of compassion fatigue. My labor of love was wearing me down.

I think we are, all of us, storytellers, looking for our voice. Spending time with this digital storytelling group over three days helped me diagnose what had been troubling me, and led me to consider several possibilities for expanding the experience I had in the StoryCenter workshop. Now I’m imagining episodes and chapters, not just in books, but also from an internal space, where a memory or experience has been buried.

The digital storytelling method transforms that need for truth telling, organizing our anecdotes, and sharing them with others. I have a renewed passion—a passion to help draw those stories out. Next month I’m heading toSan Quentin prison in California, for a tour of their arts in corrections programming. I’m going to meet the men who produce Ear Hustle, the first podcast that is recorded inside the jail, and I’m going to imagine the men I meet telling more stories through StoryCenter workshops—stories that will prevent future conflict and teach constructive problem solving.

Stories can fight bitterness, violence, and despair, the way a reader can resolve conflicts through character and plot. And here’s the thing. Digital storytelling only requires a memory, or perspective, or newly discovered insight to free the teller, and through this process we all wind up connected. We all feel compassion, and we feel less alone.

The impact of the workshop has expanded my vision of how storytelling can shift our understanding of the world and each other. For me, finally, the story of Words Beyond Bars became greater than the process of me simply talking. It was the clink of a chain-link fence, a perfect bit of background music, and a zoom into the faces of the book group guys. The depth and detail of my emotions could find light with just a few words. The script I’d pared down a dozen times with the help of Mary Ann and Holly. I recognized conflict, misgivings, attachment, and invisible boundaries in a three-minute story.

I watched my own story with a lump in my throat, thinking, I created this. I sat in that space, realizing that the struggle I’d been ignoring was that I was actually half in and half out of my nonprofit work, frustrated and suffering, with a touch of compassion fatigue. My labor of love was wearing me down.

I think we are, all of us, storytellers, looking for our voice. Spending time with this digital storytelling group over three days helped me diagnose what had been troubling me, and led me to consider several possibilities for expanding the experience I had in the StoryCenter workshop. Now I’m imagining episodes and chapters, not just in books, but also from an internal space, where a memory or experience has been buried.

The digital storytelling method transforms that need for truth telling, organizing our anecdotes, and sharing them with others. I have a renewed passion—a passion to help draw those stories out. Next month I’m heading to San Quentin prison in California, for a tour of their arts in corrections programming. I’m going to meet the men who produce Ear Hustle, the first podcast that is recorded inside the jail, and I’m going to imagine the men I meet telling more stories through StoryCenter workshops—stories that will prevent future conflict and teach constructive problem solving.

Stories can fight bitterness, violence, and despair, the way a reader can resolve conflicts through character and plot. And here’s the thing. Digital storytelling only requires a memory, or perspective, or newly discovered insight to free the teller, and through this process we all wind up connected. We all feel compassion, and we feel less alone.