Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What Is a Sideways Story and Other Thoughts on Beginnings, Middles, & Ends

From the preface to Beginnings, Middles, & Ends: Sideways Stories on the Art & Soul of Social Work, by Ogden W. Rogers

The idea for this book came from what I call a “sideways story.” A sideways story is some little (or big!) moment in life when you thought you were doing one thing, but you ended up learning another. A sideways story can also be a poem, or prose, that, because of the way it is written, may not be all that direct in its meaning. What’s nice about both clouds, and art, is that you can look at them and just resonate. I think that can be good for both the heart and the mind.

Some months ago, I received a letter from a professor with whom I had studied in undergraduate school. He had been the chaplain at the college I attended, and I remembered him as a gentle man of integrity. He had seen an article about some work I was doing in the college alumni magazine, and sent me a letter commending my efforts. I was quite flattered.

In the letter, he wrote that he was reminded of a story I had written as a young man, apparently for one of his classes. The story, he said, was about an old man whom I had come to know while working in a hospital, and who had died. A line in the story he remembered went: “Mr. Etters died yesterday. And with his death, a story ended. Not just a person had died, but a history, memories, and an unfolding story of life that could only be told by this one man also ended.” He told me that he had never forgotten that story, and that he reflected upon it as he had gone into semi-retirement and pastoral counseling of persons with terminal illnesses. I was deeply moved that anything I had ever written had “stuck” with somebody.

While the story sounded familiar, I did not remember it, and I went scouring about in my files, looking at all my undergraduate work, to see if I had kept it. (I am a world class “pack-rat” and have thrown away almost nothing in my life!) Looking off and on for weeks, I could not find the story anywhere in my files. In the search, however, I had come across all sorts of odds-n-ends of things I had written.

I have always, since a small boy, been prone to writing some of my thoughts and observations down in various forms...almost all of it mostly for myself, or shared with small audiences of clients, students, or colleagues. Not really published.

It dawned upon me that like Mr. Etters (and everybody else in the world), I too had accumulated a basket of stories. In re-reading the scraps of essays, poems, and stories I had written, I considered that in some ways they were less about “me” (whatever that is!), and more about a life following a path of a social worker.  I became arrogant enough to think you might enjoy reading some of them. I’m the hero in some of the stories; sometimes I’m the fool. I have probably learned more from the ones where I am the fool.

We talk nowadays about “research informed practice and practice informed research.” Throughout my career, I’ve considered many theories. Theory about human behavior, theory about social change, theory about the nature of reality have all swirled about in my life and practice. I have used, and been used by, theories. At times throughout this book, you might find a footnote or two that might point you to investigate something further. But mostly, this book is about how a life in social work is made up of stories.

The stories in this book are sideways...not always linear. Each one of them had some meaning for me when I wrote it, but sometimes never what I intended. Taken together, they might reflect upon some of the things I have learned on the path to becoming a social worker. Perhaps, some of the writing might create some reflections for you, too. I might suggest that you consider each story after you’ve finished reading it. What (if anything!) might it have to do with living a social worker’s life? (If nothing else, if you read them before bedtime they might induce sleep!)
Ogden W. Rogers

Beginnings, Middles, & Ends is available now from the publisher's website.