Storytelling: An Act of Resistance
by Kristen Brunelli
As I have said to others within the Denver Catholic Worker community—although there is no longer a Denver Catholic Worker House, due to last year’s fire—the Spirit of the Worker has felt especially strong in my life these past several months. I’ve begun applying to graduate school for fiction writing, which has been—even when I moved into the Catholic Worker—my love of loves (fiction writing, not applying to graduate school). In 2012, I’d moved into the Catholic Worker with a romantic sense of wanting to explore, to experience, as a writer—to be able to use these “experiences” in my writing, later on. Ultimately, I was jolted by what I saw at the Worker. I became confused. I could not sentimentalize the stories of trauma I heard. I was used to looking for meaning in every sad story, but after a while I had no energy, no drive with which I could do this searching. I was exhausted. My faith had been tried. After three years I’d seen too much violence—too much pain. Nothing made sense.
It was only after the fire that I realized it was not my role to make sense out of people’s struggles. It was certainly not my role to manipulate or try to fix these struggles, which I often tried to do in writing, I found, as the truth—that often things are not simply fixable—seemed unapproachable. And it was only after the fire that I felt I could write about what I’d witnessed there, through the liberating form of fiction. I have since written several short stories inspired by men, women, and children with whom I’ve lived. Having recently thought so deliberately about why I write fiction, it is impossible for me to imagine my life, my work, without the Worker’s influence. I have returned, alas, to that great love of writing, after a period of incredible doubt. Did writing have any real value? What did it do—and for whom? These questions kept me from writing—even kept me from reading. After nearly a year of writing consistently, focusing on short stories—encouraged by the community I have found at Lighthouse Writers in Denver—I am more and more confident that there is, indeed, value in literature. In fact, I am hoping to write short stories which are, in themselves, acts of solidarity—acts of resistance.
While I write with more urgency than I did several years ago—before I became involved with the Catholic Worker—and with more purpose than ever before, I still do not begin writing a story with a great, clear motivation. Every story I write begins with a simple curiosity, a desire to know why a person acts a certain way. I am only interested in the complicatedness, the multi-faceted or surprising aspects of a person’s personality; I look for the ways in which a person is unique, which seems to be in opposition to what we seem to be encouraged to do, to stereotype people. While developing a character, not only do I consider a character’s personal history but the context within which they live. Often I think of Peter Maurin’s saying that we need to create a world in which it is easier to be good. The Catholic Worker belief in the inherent goodness of an individual—an individual set in a harsh reality, a system which too often opposes the success of certain individuals—guides my writing. In writing, in looking closely at that context, at the options or opportunities that my character might have available to him or her, I am better able to empathize with someone who I, as easily as another, might otherwise limit or assume the worst about.
Through fiction writing I am able to wrestle with the presence of domestic violence in so many people’s lives—I am able to wrestle with the fact that so many people stay in abusive relationships. In one of my stories, which I’ve titled “The Boy With the Blue Eyes,” I explore a relationship—both characters, both the man and woman have been abusive towards each other—in which both individuals have experienced trauma, from which they each carry an enormous amount of shame. It is as if both the man and woman in this story are living in different times and places than when and where the story occurs; both are stuck in the past. In another story, titled “Little Goose” a young woman finally finds her own housing—after having been homeless for three years—and goes on to look for her mother, who’d abandoned her as a child. In these little sad but hopeful stories, I do not hope to justify the actions of my characters; merely I hope to understand them a little bit better and reveal to readers—ah, if only one day I am published!—that people are not only more complex than we might assume, but beautifully complex, wonderfully mysterious, undeniably sacred.
Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin accepted people into their lives with an openness that is rare, an openness I try to embody, which I fail to embody often in my “real” life. Through storytelling, with the illuminating power of language and poetry, I am better able to live through a spirit of openness. It is a gift to be able to redo how I’ve approached people in the past; this time, in this story, I will not close myself off, will not fear this person, will not judge them too harshly, will not limit their value, their intellect, their faith. In fact, I will look for their goodness, their beauty. Through this practice I am not only reminded of the deep, deep faith of others, through my characters—even and especially those who have struggled, who have been tried, again and again and again—but I am reminded of my own. It is in this desire, this longing to be faithful, to be trusting, that we become faithful, that we become trusting. It is only in the seeking to know that we might know—the want to love that we might love.