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11/24/2010

Dianna Marder on Repositories of History

Dianna Marder, writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, shares with us her experience collaborating with First Person Arts and the First Person Museum. She is an award-winning investigative reporter, covering courts, crime and City Hall for 18 years, before turning her talents to writing features about food and romance (which are not mutually exclusive topics). Look for her stories in the Image, Food and Daily Magazine sections.

I interviewed Dianna because of the major role she is playing at the new museum. She has been recording the stories of the objects our contributors have donated, which will then be included in the show.

On your involvement with FPA…
I came to know about First Person seven or eight years ago when, as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I was assigned to write about the annual Festival of Memoir and Documentary Arts. And the next year I wrote about the Story Slams.

I admired First Person’s belief in the intrinsic value of the human story, presented by the individual in whatever form feels right.

On the value of memoir…
I love personal histories and I’m intrigued by the power of memory and the opportunity memoir gives us to own our past and reflect on the lessons of our experience.

The way I look at it, memoir in whatever form, allows us to have some say in how we are remembered. And that’s crucial historically as well as personally because what is recorded is what we remember and that then becomes our truth .

So, in thinking about the various genocides the world has seen, for example, first person accounts give us the other side of what might be an otherwise biased account presented by the government in power at the time.

That’s part of memoir’s big picture.

On the power of the flea market…
The other part that matters so much to me is how we store our memories in objects: photographs, recipes, wooden spoons, whatever. For me, that is the lure of the flea market – it’s
a repository of folk history, a place where I’m likely to see the objects I grew up with (matchbox cars, metal skate keys, mixing bowls).

I see these things and images rush to my mind. And I have a hunch the same thing is happening simultaneously for at least half the people there, making for a kind of collective experience. A flea market is a great place for memoirists or any writers who feels stuck. Go. Think of the flea market as a Julia Cameron style Artists’ Date.

I found my Pirate’s Treasure Chest Bank at a ¬†flea market a few years ago. I had one just like it as a child.

On her role in the museum…

In 2008, I think it was, I got permission from the paper (where I still work, after 25 glorious years. Really.) to lead memoir writing workshops for older women as part of First Person’s Community Writing project. Next, I expanded the idea, leading memoir writing workshops for lifers at Graterford prison.

I’m really grateful to First Person and to the Inquirer for giving me those chances. And that’s how I came to know Vicki Solot and she came to understand how I think and work. I was delighted when she offered me the opportunity to work on the Museum of the People.

There are so many aspects of the project: still photography, audio, video, design. And of course, the whole wonderful concept came from Vicki, who is inherently brilliant. I love the way she draws people into her magnetic field.

I guess my role in the Museum is that of story gatherer. I led a series of about six workshops – one with each of the community organizations that signed on to partner with First Person, in part to expand our reach in the city’s minority communities.

I worked with Dee Johnson, Angel Hogan and Katonya Mosley, whose names might be familiar to First Person fans because each is a poet, storyteller and teacher in her own right.

On the creative process…

Ten or so individuals attended each of our six or seven workshops where we guided them in writing short pieces – right on the spot – about an object that mattered to them. And that’s how we gathered a pool of stories.

Dee Johnson inspired us to compile the stories in chapbook form and give them to our partner organizations. It was such a good idea; they look terrific.

The workshop participants came out by choice for the most part and so many of them came with a memory in mind. Some of the workshops drew laughs and some were cathartic sob fests. But all the people we met were honest and eager and had rich histories to draw on.

I think they all caught on right away to the concept. It’s as if the practice of investing our things with meaning – making them sacred objects – is subconsciously universal.

The reporter in me knew we had to “vet” the individuals and their stories – to make sure the people knew what they were getting into by having themselves and their stories on public display. But I also needed to “flesh out” some of the stories, adding context without disturbing the storyteller’s voice.

Often, when I’m writing newspaper stories, particularly profiles, I find myself mimicking the individual’s cadence in order to convey the truest image of the person. And I don’t mean this in a demeaning way at all – it’s not like writing in slang or anything – it’s just a matter of stepping back as the writer and letting the individual tell the story.

Upcoming Events
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