How to tell a story ... let me count the ways
Fri, 18 January 2019
In late 2018 Jenny Sheldon’s book, ‘I Will’, was published by the Sydney School of Arts and Humanities (SSOA), and almost immediately afterwards recorded for broadcasting on the Sydney community radio station 2RPH, making it accessible to 108,000 listeners a week as at 20 February 2019.
Good storytelling involves a little bit of magic. People can give you advice, write articles, build apps, conduct workshops - write huge tomes exploring it and scientifically examining it. But in the end, the magic and trance of good storytelling cannot be boiled down to any formulae at all. Each really good story has its own trek, particularly in the current publishing environment where there are so many platforms and pathways to see your story come to the right audience.
When Jenny Sheldon had a stroke 11 years ago, leaving her with a range of physical limitations (she had to re-learn to speak), her first thought was, ‘How do I get this story down so other people can learn from it?’.
Now if you are a writer, you would understand this train of thought immediately. But most writers don’t have to type with one hand and drag their memories and thinking out of the quagmire of aphasia (the type of brain damage and physical disability caused by Jenny’s stroke). Aphasia does not injure intelligence or mental capacity but causes great difficulty in trying to put words to thoughts. But even with these obstacles Jenny Sheldon, who was an English and drama teacher before her stroke, would not give up the idea. ‘Aphasia?’ she reflects to herself in the book. ‘Wow...’. She was relieved and pleased to actually have a name for it. I think that attitude describes Jenny as a person, and why she was able, eleven years later, to succeed in publishing and podcasting her book.
Jenny is the first to say that she did not accomplish this on her own. She started to write as soon as she was able to put fingers to keyboard (or at least the one set of fingers on her left hand that she was still able to use) - tracking her progress towards recovery of her speech, thinking and walking capabilities. It was a long and difficult way towards recovery of her speech and the use of her legs and hands. Along the way there were also periods of depression and joy, and the construction and dissolution of relationships. But it was when she met Sharon Dean and then Christine Williams four years ago that the book project took on momentum.
Christine, Director of the SSOA publishing house at The Rocks in Sydney, was holding writing groups weekly to encourage writers with active projects to read and share their work. Jenny started to attend, reading. The stages of building back her life in a different way was something she wanted to relate to others.
‘There was nothing else out there,’ she says, ‘for people who were going through what I was going through. I wanted to share that experience of being incapacitated, of wanting to get well, but feeling lost.’ Her frustration was about how to structure a book around those experiences. Even though she had been an English teacher before her stroke she was at a loss about how to construct a book.
Christine encouraged her and introduced her to Sharon Dean, an academic and journalist, who had just returned to Sydney after carrying out a digital story project in the Northern Rivers of NSW. Sharon understood the difficulties but decided to take on the task. ‘I was intrigued from the get-go,’ she says. ‘Jenny had no ego - she was so incredibly big-hearted and wanted to connect with people. It was impossible not to want to help.’
And so the story construction began - a mammoth task that took 4 years for both Jenny and Sharon to work through the material and memories. Sharon had had experience with stroke victims and, in common, she and Jenny were singers: ‘singing is easier than talking - especially for stroke victims. I was running a digital story program in elder care environments, so I was used to the process of listening to elicit a story.’
At first the mentoring was tough for both, and Sharon soon found that Jenny would get overly fatigued by the process. ‘I began by mentoring her in a conventional sense, commenting weekly on each section as Jenny wrote it. But she had trouble with the physicality of typing - having the use of only her left hand. She was also getting anxious and stressed when she could not recollect things in the right sequence and location. And of course, Jenny being Jenny, she wanted to mention every person who had been involved in her recovery, or who had had a positive influence on her. That is the loveliness of her.’
Sharon decided to interview Jenny instead, eliciting information and responses journalist-style. This worked for both of them, arduous though it was.
‘I knew the story would emerge as I let her talk it through, prompted by questions I would ask,’ says Sharon who would take copious notes, quotes and descriptive events during the interview sessions, taking care to keep Jenny’s voice and personality at the core. ‘It was about waiting for the right words, the right images and recollections that would bind the story together and progress it.’
Taking the burden of writing the script off Jenny’s shoulders meant that Jenny could focus on her recollections and express them in metaphor in her own characteristic way of seeing the world. Sharon was keen to capture her excitement and optimism while undergoing the trials of the experiences she had. ‘I might take one sentence out of 1000 words of script I had taken down,’ says Sharon, ‘but you knew it as soon as you heard it, that that one particular gem of a description or event which rang clear and true would fit in perfectly. It was working on a gut feeling most of the time.’
And working with Jenny?
‘This is what inspired me to keep going, and still inspires me about Jenny,’ says Sharon. ‘What I loved was that when I honed in on any one situation, and asked Jenny to focus on it, she would be so determined to get it right, to keep trying to pin down that memory.’
Sharon was continually surprised and impressed by Jenny. At one stage during her research in cross-checking Jenny’s medical experiences, she discovered that Jenny’s stroke was likely caused by something that could have been avoidable. She suffered a dilemma about whether to reveal this to Jenny. But Jenny, on being told, simply took it in her stride and decided to include it as part of the story (you will need to read the book to find out!).
The writing of the book, as Sharon and Jenny both describe it, was intimate, intuitive, and required a good storyteller’s ear. All of these qualities are reflected in the style of the book’s writing. Sharon describes how Jenny at times would pull out a surprisingly vivid and apt word to describe something - or remember a precise fragment of dialogue that was so realistic, ‘they were perfect to use,’ she says. ‘There was proof for me, time and time again, that all those skills as an English and drama teacher were still there inside her despite the aphasia.’
Shortly before Jenny launched her book in Sydney at Ariel bookshop in October 2018, she met Barbara Sullivan, an announcer and interviewer with Radio 2RPH in Sydney (a Radio Reading service which reads, informs and entertains people who have difficulty accessing print). Barbara immediately saw the potential benefit of reading the book for the radio’s listeners, many of whom had disabilities. Without hesitation she took on the role of working with Jenny over several months to record the book in 8 half-hour podcasts, in readiness to be serialised and made available on the radio station’s website as a podcast.
At that initial meeting Barbara recognised what would need to be done to make Jenny’s book both a personal account of courage in the face of a major physical challenge, and also accessible to readers.
‘It was so interesting for me,’ says Barbara, whose career has been in publishing and media. ‘There is an intimacy to listening to radio. It is delivered straight to your ear with no visual distractions. That is why the sound quality is so important. But the book has a simple tone, a very accessible story, and I thought it was important to ensure that in the reading of it, it was staying true to Jenny. Her voice needed to be heard.’
Organising the process of recording Jenny’s book, and with Jenny’s voice featuring in parts, was breaking the mould on how the radio station operates. Being a radio reading service, a high standard was in place regarding the audio quality of the readers. Stringent auditions were conducted for those who had ambitions as readers and announcers. Jenny’s stroke did make her voice more challenging to hear.
Barbara and Jenny together carved out sections of the book, deciding which parts would be read by Barbara, and separating the more personal sections to be read out by Jenny herself. The audio corrections and editing were critical to ensure that Jenny’s voice remained true, but would also give listeners the opportunity to enjoy the book unimpeded by aural impediments to understanding the story.
‘This was a first,’ Barbara says. ‘It was stretching the boundaries of what we do at 2RPH by introducing a voice that is challenging, yet reflective of the importance of our work here, which is to enable listeners with a disability or disadvantage to access reading material. But Jenny’s excitement and enthusiasm is part of what drives her and this makes her very listenable. She had had experience as a jazz singer and so was used to delivering to audiences. She had that innate understanding of the audience.’
The most compelling reason for Barbara to take on this project, which took many months of production, was the actual story itself, and what she saw as the valuable messages in the book which were particularly pertinent for the station’s mission.
‘For our listeners it is such an interesting story of a young woman’s life before and after a life critical event. There are flash-backs in the book about her jazz singing and how music and singing became important goals in her battle to overcome her adversity. She does not shy away from how tough it was, and she shows without doubt how she came out finer and better as a result of all her experiences. And as a story itself - you get caught up immediately and you want to know what happens next! The prologue is superb.’
The experience was a personal one for all four women involved in developing and producing the book for readers and listeners. Each felt enhanced by it, and the process itself has forged new ground on how a book can be written, produced and delivered in their respective areas.
Christine Williams had decided to publish the work from early on when she heard Jenny’s attempts to write the story at her writing groups.
‘There was no doubt in my mind that it was a really valuable story and Jenny had a natural story-telling style. There were obstacles for sure, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome. Getting the right mentor for her was the key.’ Being a small publisher meant this personal sense of dealing with an emerging author was part of the process.
Christine linked her with Sharon Dean; she knew Sharon as a ‘perfectionist’, who would be assiduous in ensuring all Jenny’s factual recollections and details of medical procedures were correct.
‘I was Sharon’s supervisor when she was undertaking her Honours Degree, so I was familiar with her methodology. They were both a great fit for each other, and I was confident Sharon would do Jenny’s story justice.’
For Sharon Dean, mentoring turned into co-writing, and both she and Jenny give each other enormous credit for the work. Sharon says the message she would like people to receive, is to not judge people by their externals.
‘You can meet someone and not know what they have been through, and you are not in a position to judge and make assumptions about them. Jenny is so strong; she is an upward spiral of inspiration. And despite all the hard work involved, overall it was a joyful process of discovery.’
Barbara Sullivan of Radio 2RPH says she felt privileged to have the opportunity to bring this to life on-air.
‘I am in awe of Jenny’s optimism. She didn’t carry any bitterness. She just kept moving forward. And as a community radio station serving those with a disability we were in a unique position to podcast the book. With some creative thinking and the use of some technology we were able to be genuinely inclusive and representative of those whom we serve. I’d do it again - this project proved it was totally possible.’
Personally, she says, ‘the main message for me was that you take what you have and make the most of it.’
For Jenny the recording was a surprising added bonus, and she was amazed to hear her story spoken in parts by Barbara whose voice, she says, is ‘melodious’. Again and again she praises Sharon and Christine without whom, she says, it would have been impossible to finish the book.
‘It is long and it is hard to write a book,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t have done it without the writers centre (SSOA writing groups). Encouragement is vital to keep writing, and it gave me heart when I was losing confidence in myself.’
For any listener and reader who has a life-shattering event, Jenny has this take-away: get inspired, keep encouraged and be determined. An adversity gives you strength. Always know there is a new day and a new horizon.
For me, writing this article, it was thrilling to see two organisations which operate on different platforms of media, collaborate and enhance each other’s mission. I belong to both organisations in different capacities, Deputy Chair of 2RPH and Editor for SSOA. It took very little effort to introduce the parties to each other (I joke that I have never received so much praise for doing so little). The idea took fire when Barbara and Jenny met. But the result is that Jenny’s book, and all the effort and skill applied by Sharon and Christine, was able to be converted to broadcast quality. It will reach an even larger audience who will undoubtedly benefit from her experiences. Maria Issaris, Mariaissaris@icloud.com.au
- Barbara Sullivan and Jenny Sheldon recording the book in the studios of 2RPH.
- The front cover of Jenny Sheldon's book, I Will: A memoir of stroke, renewal and the power of song.
The book is available for purchase via the SSOA website (click here) and in all good bookstores. Watch this space for when we announce the date for the book readings and interview to be broadcast.