Friday, October 20, 2017

Adaptation: My Oral Storytelling on Brain Trauma

Oral storytelling is an ancient tradition. About a year ago at ​Busboys and Poets in D.C., I told a story through the organization The Story Collider. The story I told was about one of my more upsetting effects of cancer treatment, and how I learned to cope–and maybe, in some ways, even improve myself because of it. That story published today and you can hear it here.

Benjamin Rubenstein's oral storytelling about brain trauma resulting from cancer radiation

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Hi There, I Write Your Stories, I Mean ‘Our Stories’

I write stories about my coworkers. Collectively known as "Our Stories," a new one publishes in my organization's newsletter every other week. Yesterday, the newsletter published a story I wrote about . . . myself. Here is that story with some redactions.

* * *
Every morning after waking, I prime my body and mind for the day: meditate for 20 minutes, perform 20 pull­-ups, and then jump on a mini trampoline while singing whatever pops into my head. I then move to the kitchen where I prepare four eggs mixed with hot sauce and grated cheddar on a pan coated with butter, and pour-­over coffee. Once my breakfast is ready, I enjoy it at my desk while reading the news. Fifteen minutes later, I set the empty plate aside, bring my mug closer, and repeat a mantra that primes me for what comes next: writing. No email, notifications or distractions of any kind, just writing.
I thrive on routines. If my day consists of writing, coffee and an adventure, then that’s a perfect day I could live repeatedly. Photo taken on July 2, 2017, while hiking with friends at Mary’s Rock in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. In the photo I am holding forearm crutches which give me freedom to explore the world despite not having a left hip bone. Photo by Heather Durosko.
Writing is solitary. It’s just me, a giant coffee mug, a laptop, and Daft Punk playing through my 15-watt Bluetooth speaker.

This is my craft, which I chose without realizing it. That unconscious decision took place one Saturday night in July 2004 when I was 20. I was working at a Hollywood Video in my hometown Manassas, Virginia, during summer break. My job title was “guest services representative,” which was a fancy phrase for “DVD unlocker.” I wasn’t a stellar movie rental store employee. I was slower than my coworkers at checking out customers. Three times I forgot to give back a customer’s photo ID only to see her return for it about an hour later rather irritated. And, the store manager once chided me for showing Top Gun instead of Space Jam on the store’s TVs, which lined the top of the purple walls.

From Top Gun: "Maverick, it's not your flying, it's your attitude. The enemy's dangerous, but right now you're worse.”

I guess I wanted to be the maverick of movie rental stores.

That night around 10 p.m., still with two hours left to unlock DVDs, I had an epiphany. I had to share this in person with one of my closest friends, so I texted Hamburgers to see if he would still be up at 1 a.m. He texted back that he would. Of course he’d be awake; Hamburgers usually went to bed around 6 a.m. unless his Xbox overheated first.

When we closed the store soon after midnight, I drove to Hamburgers's parents’ house, and he met me outside in the cul-­de-­sac.

I got out of the car and went to stand by the hood, because this felt too important to state while being seated. In the darkness, it was hard to see Hamburgers's eyes so I focused mine just below his curly red hair. Then, I came out with it. “You and I should co­-write a memoir.”

The idea had nothing to do with unlocking DVDs, and I’ll never know how or why it entered my consciousness hours before at Hollywood Video. In fact, it had been 11 years since I last wrote a story. That was about the Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen playing basketball one­-on­-one against an extraterrestrial. I even illustrated it. But under the bright lamps of a Hollywood Video store and few stars that were visible through Northern Virginia’s light pollution, I felt compelled to write again, and I knew Hamburgers and I had a story to tell.

Though we’d known each other since the fifth grade, we became close when we were 17 due to our shared understanding of illness. While I was getting treatment for my first major illness, a bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, Hamburgers revealed to me in secret that he had acquired HIV from a contaminated blood product to treat his hemophilia when he was 3. Later, while at the University of Virginia together and after I had recovered from my second illness, a cancer of the bone marrow called myelodysplastic syndrome, we would stay up all night talking. We discussed whether to hide our diseases from new friends and romantic interests, how our diseases gave us perspective, and how they made Jujyfruits more rewarding. Man, we loved candy.
Me (left) and one of my closest friends, Hamburgers, watching NCAA March Madness games in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2017. Once stricken with life¬threatening illnesses, I’ve now been cancer-free for over 14 years and Hamburgers’s viral load, a measure of the amount of HIV in his blood, is undetectable.
Hamburgers looked at me for some time before responding to my epiphany. Finally, he said that yes he would write this book with me and to get started; he’d catch up. Ecstatic, I drove home where I handwrote 500 words before falling asleep at 2:30 a.m.

The next morning I looked at my work. It was atrocious, and I don’t just mean my nearly indecipherable scribbles. It may have been the drabbest 500 words ever written. But, I kept writing—I had already started, so why not finish? Had I known a published memoir was typically around 85 thousand words or that Hamburgers didn’t even plan on writing the book with me and only agreed as a way to encourage me, maybe I wouldn’t have continued. But I did, and I never stopped. I’m now spending a chunk of my mornings writing my third book as a student in University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program.

I plan to continue my morning routine forever. This is the path of writing solitude I’ve gone down, and even if only two people who I call “mom” and “dad” read my writing, I do it because I believe it is my best way to make a difference and I love it.

Then Our Stories happened, and suddenly my writing was no longer so solitary.
For many years I refused to discuss my past illnesses, even though they consumed much of my adolescence and helped inform the person I’ve become. Since I began sharing my story in writing, conversation and formal talks, I’ve connected with many people. That connection—not to specific individuals but generally relating to others through our shared struggle—has been among my most rewarding experiences. This photo was taken in August 2014 while being filmed for an upcoming documentary which will feature me and other young people victimized by cancer. Photo courtesy of Cancer Rebellion.
A little over two years ago, the office where I work as a writer and editor wanted to publish a story series about our organization's employees. They asked me to write the first article. I can’t even remember how we found her, or if she found us, but I’ll never forget interviewing and learning about S.H., the officer whose mother nicknamed her “mud princess” and who wore waterproof mascara at special ceremonies. I spent more time writing S.H.'s story than most of the hundreds of other stories I’ve written since that night in July 2004.

Since then, we’ve published 53 Our Stories articles, of which I’ve had the privilege to write 51. I’ve learned and written about people like R.P., the most meticulous researcher and clearest speaker I know, and M.R., who I hope will be the artist if ever I’m the subject of a six­-foot-­tall painting, and T.B., who tells the best stories of his adventures and unfathomable runs.
Some of my friends and me (second from right in back) in University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program. All of us (except the person second from left, who transferred to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop) will graduate in January 2018. Though my background is in writing memoir, I chose the program track that emphasizes literary fiction. Writing fiction is harder than I imagine abstaining from a case of Jujyfruits sitting directly in front of me would be. Photo taken January 2016 in Freeport, Maine.
The reasons why our colleagues have chosen to share their stories have differed, but maybe they all understood what I learned last month while traveling around Ireland by myself: sharing an experience matters as much as the experience itself. Sharing gives them more meaning, while keeping them quiet diminishes their value to ourselves and deprives others of finding their own value in them.

However, for whatever reasons our colleagues have shared their stories, I’m the one who has reaped the greatest reward. Hearing these different struggles and successes, and trying to find the truth in them through the written word, makes me a more empathetic and better person. These are not S.H.'s and my stories. They’re Our Stories, and writing them has been the most rewarding project of my career.

I want to thank you for reading Our Stories. By reading them, you’re giving me the opportunity to keep doing what I love. I look forward to learning and writing about more of you. Whether or not you know it yet, you have an extraordinary story to tell.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Road Tripping Ireland: Drive on the Left

In July, I spent one week in Dingle, Ireland, where I participated in my fourth residency in my fiction-writing program. After residency, two friends and I explored Dublin for a few days, and then I rented a car by myself to travel around the southwestern part of the country for several more days. Of course I made a video of my adventures. Enjoy. You can watch it on YouTube or directly below if your web browser allows.

Ireland: the land of every shade of green covering rolling hills, the kindest and most welcoming people, and a shocking quantity of pubs.

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What kind of life do I want to lead? My emotional reaction after reading When Breath Becomes Air.

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

See Where the Heat Is

“You should request Sarah to be your mentor next semester, she’s fabulous!” said Susan Conley, the visiting workshop leader for my fourth residency in Dingle, Ireland, which ended just over one week ago.

My upcoming semester is a biggie—I’ll complete my thesis, which I hope becomes a published book of short stories.

I followed Susan's recommendation and emailed Sarah and asked if she’d like to work with me. But the next day, even before Sarah responded, I said to Susan, “I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I was thinking: would you like to work with me?”

The typical residencies for my Stonecoast creative writing program in Maine are small enough to know who everyone is yet large enough not to be able to befriend everyone. My recent residency in Ireland included 10 students and two faculty members, a size that allowed me to become besties with everyone. On the second day of residency, I realized something: Susan was amazing.

Susan was also on board with my idea for her to mentor me. “I was thinking the same thing last night!” she said.

With Susan’s help, over the next four months I will revise my short stories into about 125 pages of beautiful prose. Well, the 125 pages will be all me and Susan, while the beautiful prose will require the additional help of a leprechaun. During this time, I plan to tell my friends to temporarily fuck off so I can write. Except on NFL Sundays. Priorities.

During our intimate week at Bambury’s Guesthouse on the Dingle Peninsula, I learned more about writing than if I'd read James Joyce's novels ten times each. One cool thing resulting from writing and reading is that, sometimes, you learn about yourself and the human condition, and the lessons apply elsewhere. Here are some of those writing lessons I learned during my residency in Ireland (these are not direct quotes). Consider whether you can use these lessons in your own life by substituting “language,” “metaphor,” etc. with “relationship,” “prostitution ring,” or whatever you want:

Susan says:

  • Find where the heat is. Sometimes, the heat can be on the language, but it’s often on the tension.
  • Tension should look like an EKG report, full of little spikes overlapping the story arc.
  • The first sentence of a story is an embrace. It should have an electrical current that shocks and illuminates.

Kevin Barry, our guest presenter who has won the International Dublin Literary Award, says:
  • It takes 10-11 years for the emotional charge to come out of an experience. That’s the length of time to feel properly embittered.
  • Everything you start, even if it sucks, finish it. Writing a good story only comes after you write bad ones.
  • The bits of your writing that make you recoil, feel embarrassed, or feel vulnerable, those are the bits to keep. Dig deeper.

Ted Deppe, one of Stonecoast’s resident poets, says metaphors:
  • Align with the way the brain works. Writers use them to convey information and give the reader pleasure.
  • Create a veil; they create distance before bringing the reader back through.
  • Show readers how the writer sees the world. They’re not just to make the words pretty.

Lastly, Susan says fiction and memoir share many of the same features and the two genres can be blended. For example, a memoirist may use fiction to protect his or her loved ones. Ted agrees and says that poets make things up to tell the truth. Both Ted and Susan gave us a few minutes to complete different writing prompts during our workshops. Below is my favorite writing in response to one such prompt. Is this memoir or fiction? A writer never tells...unless you treat him to Irish whiskey.

Her eyes lock with mine. “Want to climb?” she says.

Of course. I tie my figure eight knot as she secures the other end of my rope to her carabiner. How long has she climbed? A few years. What does she do? Raises money for good causes, only the things she wants to and nothing else, and smiles. Why does she smile so much? She both gets joy from and gives joy to others.

Do I want to start climbing? she asks.

Yes, but first I must note that my previous observation that it can take just three minutes to think I’m in love has now been reduced by one minute.
Stonecoast in Ireland Summer 2017 Crew
Me and my fellow Stonecoast in Ireland students during the summer 2017 residency in Dingle.
Related Stories
See the video I made after my first residency, and read about the lessons I learned from my second and third residencies.

My Next Big Thing
The Story Collider plans to turn the story I told in September into a podcast. Check back here in the coming weeks to see when the podcast airs.

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