The Power of Story: The Inspiration of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou quote

Just a week before the sad news of Maya Angelou’s death, I connected with her on Google+ and Twitter. I still see her face pop up on Twitter, realizing in some ways, life continues beyond death. As I sit at my desk glancing at her many books lining my shelf, I realize they’re like ancient stone wells that I can dip into for real life stories — poetic, soul quenching truth.


Dr. Angelou endorsed my first film, The Healing Years, about women survivors of sexual abuse healing. She said of this film, my first independent documentary, “This document does the most difficult, almost impossible feat: it admits the sick and cruel past. In doing so, it becomes therapy for a healthy future. This is an exhibition of abundant courage and great heart. Thank you.”




I say, ‘No, thank you, Maya Angelou’. Thank you, because while reading your classic masterpiece, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, I heard the caged bird singing as clearly as if it were on my shoulder. My film, The Healing Years, in part born from your inspiration, was a film to celebrate women’s voices, Maya Angelou style—bold, heart- felt, and courageous. I imagined millions of women sexually abused as girls having a big voice, like yours, emerging from muteness, from the stark deserts of silence. I imagined their voices echoing far and wide, like the far-reaching call of a chorus of kakapo birds. I imagined them not as whispers, but bold and outspoken, like the loud calls of the Superb Lyre Bird. I imagined these women joining on treetops, preparing to sing stories, not alone, not quietly, but operatic style, celebrating the reclaiming call of their lives, together.


 Symphony of Voices of those abused

Many forms of media offer creative license and wide open spaces to shout out from sunken valleys, the hidden stories buried in our souls and hearts: documentaries, videos, books, theater, poems, art, dance, music, and such projects as David Lisak’s Bristlecone Project, portraits featuring male survivors of childhood sexual abuse, profiled recently in our blog.


Photograph by Susan Barbini/Art Basel Miami Exhibit

Photograph by Susan Barbini


We must tell them–around fireplaces, in cafes, on blogs, in theaters, on walls, on street corners, in front of our computers. We must unleash them from cages, trusting they’ll fly onto the shoulders and hearts of a listener, or two, or more. Sometimes like raindrops on a pond, they’ll create ripple effects in communities, and most certainly will touch a person’s life.


Photograph by Susan Barbini

Photograph by Susan Barbini


Don’t stop.


Author Brian Doyle says, “Stories maybe save lives”.


Antonio, featured in the male survivor group in our film, Boys and Men Healing from childhood sexual abuse said, “men want to tell their stories, they just need the space to do so.”


We need to make space for stories, in particular, stories not yet told—those squashed, oppressed, and silenced.


The difficult part of telling stories is that sometimes it takes courage to share our stories. In taking the first step, we walk through the threshold to the doorway of our souls where our stories await us. We must venture onward into uncharted territory, where another door awaits.  As we walk through these doors, we write, film, take the photo, dance, paint, make music.


Photography by Susan Barbini

Photography by Susan Barbini


Anne Lamott said about writing, “If there’s one door you have been told not to go through, you must.”


Laughed at as a child because of my off-key singing voice, I stopped singing. Only later, in the quiet of the night when my son was a young boy, I’d sing him to sleep.  Often he’d say, ‘mom, you have such a beautiful voice.”


I was also told, ‘you’re too deep, too sensitive”.  So, I toughened up, covering ‘sensitive’ with thick, leathery skin. Putting on snorkel gear and a fake smile, tip-toeing into the shallow waters, I joined my critics — laughing at jokes I didn’t understand, learning to pretend to be someone else. Yet, in the boredom and pain of their shallow waters, I never gave up my yearning for deep sea diving.


Once in my career as a television producer, when I interviewed for a woman’s issues program, the supervisor asked me, “what would you rather be, an archaeologist or a psychologist?”


Answering, I said, “both, because I like to dig.”


She reminded me of of a Jungian analyst; calm and rocking gently back and forth in her leather office chair, the interviewer shook her head up and down saying, “Ah yes, very wise”.


I got the job. Wise? I’m not so sure. Truthful, yes. Claiming my true self, yes, and my insatiable, innate passion to feel the pulse of truth, to dig into the heartbeat of life.


Eventually, I discovered telling stories through documentaries and advocacy filmmaking and outreach which offered a deeper well for expression. Now I can bring meaningful stories to communities throughout the globe, creating ripple effects, so communities can join together on treetops, making change together.


So once again I say. “Thank you Maya Angelou, for your inspiration, for your Big Beautiful Voice. your Uncaged Bird still sings..”


What’s your story? How do you tell it, or want to tell it? We’d love to hear from you..  And don’t forget, sign up for our future blogs on our main page!


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