Last week I went to visit one of my favorite college professors. I took her Performing Literary Texts class as a freshman and fell in love with storytelling. Earlier this year, I found out that she had terminal cancer. Against all odds, she is still here, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. She’s a professional storyteller and her story’s just not finished yet. Cancer will have to wait. But because she knows that she won’t be around much longer, she has endeavored to make sure her story continues in some way. She has chosen to do this, in part, by giving me her entire collection of books on creative drama and educational theatre techniques.
She sent me home with three reusable grocery bags stuffed with books, plays, index cards, and notes from the 1970s to the the present. I spread them out all over my living room floor and attempted to sort them–books about arts-integration, dance, play, movement, crafts, puppets, masks, mime and for every demographic: children, teens, adults, students, the elderly, and people on the autism spectrum. Sitting on the floor, surrounded by this explosion of creative knowledge and potential felt like Christmas.
It also felt overwhelming. These books are worthless if they just sit on my shelves. My professor trusts me to use them. That’s when the doubts started creeping in. How am I going to read that much material? Will I be able to retain and apply the wealth of information? Will I honor the faith that this professor has invested in me to make sure that this knowledge is shared?
I elbowed my anxieties into the background and focused on sorting the panoply of books into categorized stacks. Once I had tamed the chaos somewhat, I recalled what my professor told me when she handed over the books. “This is a collection.” Her emphasis on the word, “collection” gave me pause. These books belong together. They aren’t meant to be separated or necessarily even categorized. They encompass one overarching body of knowledge. While I needed to organize this massive array of books for my own sanity, it was clear that every volume fell into a single category: making and sharing stories.
When I think about it that way, the collection isn’t so overwhelming. In fact, it’s overwhelmingly simple. Every single book offers insights and tools for helping people express themselves in creative ways. Each author submits different ideas and methods, but they all ultimately serve the same purpose and it’s a purpose that is the heart and lungs of my work as a teaching artist. Make stories. Express them.
More than anything else, working has a theatre practitioner has taught me that stories are the building blocks of life and that those stories need to be shared. That’s what this collection and teaching artistry are all about. We celebrate the stories that make us human and endeavor to share them through books, performances, pottery, painting, word of mouth, dance–the artistic outlets are without limit. My goal as a teaching artist is to help make these outlets available to anyone who wants them.
I want to put a particular emphasis on the variety of artistic outlets. “It’s a collection.” Sure, I had to categorize the books so that I can find what I need when I need it, but ideally, the arts shouldn’t be segregated into categories. Theatre and dance, making murals and music, singing and poetry, they all complement each other. Of course we tend to specialize in the areas that light us up the most, but the key is to embrace and celebrate as many creative media as possible. It’s a collection that we’re all a part of.
My professor’s collection of life stories is going to end in this world before too long. And she’s okay with that. What matters to her is that as many other people as possible have the opportunity to make their stories heard. We all have too many stories to share in one limited lifetime, but we all have some gems that are worth communicating with others. We share stories because they are what connect us. We might have different books, but each one of us is a living library. Making art gives us the opportunity to sort through the dusty volumes of our lives and pick out a few favorites to share. We might pick a fairy tale that our parents read to us at bedtime or we might choose to reignite the story of our first heartbreak or best vacation ever.
By sharing her collection of books with me, my professor has also shared a piece of her life’s library. And beyond that, she has contributed to mine.