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What’s your story?

by Tammi Leader Fuller

I’ve spent decades in the midst of chaotic Control Rooms, producing live newscasts as history was going down: when President Reagan was shot, that chilly morning the Shuttle Challenger exploded in midair, the moment the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

I gave birth to my first daughter the day Hurricane Gilbert ravaged Jamaica, and my second little girl arrived the same week the Florida Marlins threw out their first pitch.

Many of my life’s milestones have been defined by the synchronicity of the news events surrounding them.

I became a network television producer because I like to tell stories. My mom is a voracious reader, and we grew up listening to them. She would give us the CliffsNotes version of whatever book she was buried in or story she had heard, and I would repackage and retell my mom’s stories, spinning them my own way.

So when I got to college and learned that in the journalism school, papers superceded multiple choice tests, and there was no school on Fridays (ever), I decided to make storytelling my profession.

Over 32 years, I’ve produced hundreds of pieces you might have seen on TV, but the real stories are often the ones that never make air.

I was 7 months pregnant with my second daughter when the Today Show sent me to Sesame Street as the Children’s Television Workshop was gearing up for its 25th anniversary. There was no way I was going without Chelsea, my Big Bird-obsessed 4 and a half year old, so I smuggled her on set with my mom, who volunteered to watch her while I worked.

The first scene of the day centered around a puppet named Ross Parrot, a caricature of then Presidential hopeful Ross Perot. As that skit was wrapping, I gave my camera crew a break so I could spend a few minutes with an already awestruck Chelsea, who was beside herself that she and Big Bird were actually breathing the same air. And then it all went downhill from there.

Who knew that Carroll Spinney, the guy who played Big Bird, was also a ringer for Oscar the Grouch, the only Sesame Street character who scared the daylights out of my daughter? Before I could distract her, Big Bird’s bright yellow costume was lying in a pile on the floor, and this Spinney dude was slipping into Oscar’s garbage can costume. From across the set, I saw my traumatized toddler’s mouth drop open and nearly had a coronary.

I quickly turned the crew’s break into lunch, caught my breath and quietly asked one of the unfazed show’s producers if Chelsea could go meet Prairie Dawn, her all-time favorite Sesame Street puppet. He agreed, but only after witnessing my poor kid turn 50 shades of gray. We were slowing down production and he was a little annoyed by it.

On the way to the “puppet room”, I noticed a lifeless Snuffleupagus costume hanging over the rafters, but quickly turned the gang around before Chelsea caught it. She was still recovering from the Big Bird/Oscar fakeout, but seemed open to meeting Prairie Dawn, and as she held my hand, both our palms were sweaty.

I’m not sure what I expected, but it definitely wasn’t the giant, fading beige filing cabinet that almost filled the room. I didn’t get it at first, and then this guy walked Chelsea over to the drawer marked “Prairie Dawn” in faded letters, opened it, and stuck his hand into the puppet, kicking off a little puppet show.That’s when Chelsea gave me the stinkeye and started to whimper, and gradually began to raise hell. When the show’s lovable storekeeper heard her sobs, he ran over and tried to console her. As my traumatized daughter looked deep into Mr. Hooper’s sweet, forgiving eyes, he almost had her. But Chelsea wanted outta there.

Nobody saw that story on the Today Show. The one we told was more about the barriers broken by Sesame Street and its impact on kids and grown ups over a quarter century. Sesame Street was created to help bridge the gap between learning and fun through storytelling.

I left that N.Y. studio more than 20 years ago, grateful to be able to tell stories for a living, and spent the next couple decades bouncing around the globe doing it. Sometimes it takes ten re-dos before a final draft leaves my computer. Other times, it’s only two or three. But I have finally come to understand that rewrites are part of the journey.

And while I will always love telling other people’s stories, I’m now spreading my wings and helping other women rewrite theirs. Through Campowerment, a sleepaway camp for grown women, fun and games are co-mingled with interactive workshops led by experts, providing the tools women need to change their stories.

My 77-year-old mom, Joan Leader, a former college professor, is one of those experts sharing her infectious love for storytelling, teaching others how to cultivate theirs. In her daily journaling workshops at Campowerment, it’s my mom, my storytelling mentor and now a “camp counselor,” who’s showing hundreds of women, it’s never too late for a rewrite.

Thanks Mom . . . for giving me (and my daughters) the gift that keeps on giving.

Storytelling through the generations

by Joan Leader

My mother, Mary Cooperman Furman, was a first-generation American woman who grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Mom was one of eight children and although there was an abundance of love, they didn’t have too many material belongings. I remember the stories Mom and her favorite sister, Lillie, used to tell. They couldn’t afford dolls so they would dress-up seltzer bottles, decorating them with used remnants of cloth and lace and buttons and bows and whatever else they could rescue from Grandma Becky’s sewing basket. The stories they wove from their childhood experiences have been passed down through the decades and have become an integral part of our family history.

Through the years, I have recorded our family stories through short vignettes I call “Glimmers.” My Glimmers sat in a folder on my computer for a long time until five years ago, when I realized these stories represented several eras in my lifetime, and needed to be preserved and shared. When I finally began organizing these written pieces into a manageable form, I was pleasantly surprised to see how our family’s stories were intertwined across several generations. “Glimmers One” and “Glimmers Two” have now been printed and are in the hands of my loving children and grandchildren and now I’m planning on “Glimmers Three.”

Chelsea, my oldest grandchild will soon be twenty-five, but when she was born I began a journal to her. I recorded little snippets of her life and those of her beloved family. I had intended to be very diligent about this endeavor but I must admit that there were many “post-its” in the book to remind me of stories I wanted to record but never quite got around to completing. When Chelsea was getting ready to graduate from college, I organized all the bits and pieces of paper that were in that journal and presented it to her on her graduation day. She said, “Grandy, It was one of the best gifts I ever received.”

I was a late bloomer who went back to college in my mid-thirties. That was the best gift I had ever received (though my husband of 55 years still whines that he had to pay for it!). After graduation, I taught reading and language arts to budding teachers at the University level. My love for people and words and stories has permeated my entire life and made me the person I am today; a woman seventy-seven years young who rejoices each day, and celebrates every story I’ve ever heard with a deep sense of gratitude.

My writing (and my storytelling) continues while I work alongside my daughter, Tammi, as she lives out her story, not only as an accomplished television producer, but also as the creator of Campowerment. I may be the oldest expert at this four day celebration of women, but my daily journaling workshops are packed with excited campers, often anxious, but always ready to rewrite their own stories. Encouraging women to tell their stories is a gift I love sharing. Write on!

Tammi Leader Fuller

About Tammi Leader Fuller

Tammi Leader Fuller is still an Emmy-Award winning Television Producer, adding Camp Director/Owner to her resume. For more information, check out Campowerment.

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