Story! Story!

posted in: Writing, History | 0

The first book I published, The Story in History (Teachers & Writers Collaborative 1992), demonstrates to students and writers–would-be and already accomplished poets, novelists, dramatists, memoirists–how to go beneath the statistics and dates of history to vivify what happened. I present forms–letter poems, poems in two voices, radio dramas, messages scratched on prison stones, Native American “Winter Counts,” battle dispatches, laboring songs and harvest recipes–into which writers can pour the voices and drama of events, great or small, real and enlivened, to recount what happened as we crossed the terrain, suffered the weather, mastered the technology, strife, nourishment of the past.

Now I’m trying to convince writers in science and education to do the same thing. I think they fear two things: losing authority and the appearance of hard-and-fast objectivity.

Let me convince with a real-life example. Saturday night, after a fine turkey dinner and before Sunday’s blizzard knocked the stuffing out of us, some friends sat in our living room. After a lengthy debate about ways to build community support for solar energy, another topic presented itself. “What do you say to this?” asked a communications expert who works for one of the biggest hospital complexes in the Twin Cities. “I was given the job of rewriting a final documentation of changes made within various departments over the past year. Departments had already submitted their accounts, but many of them were so compressed and “jargonized” that even I, who know a lot about medicine and hospital procedures, even I had only a glimmer of what they were talking about. The more I thought about the problem–because this document had to communicate to many people inside and out of the hospital–the more I realized that these hard-working, dedicated medical professionals had no idea how to tell a story. Instead of the jargonized compressed version of the solution, we needed a narrative–the story of the problems they’d encountered, the solutions they’d tried, where they’d failed and how they’d arrived at solutions (even if only temporary).

“What I did,” he continued, “was to sketch out what I thought was the story. Then I took my sketchy version and showed it to them. A few acknowledged that, yes, they’d felt the need of some such account, but didn’t know how to go about writing it. Others simply looked at me as if I were looney. ‘But, we know all that,’ they said in essence, a little suspicious that I, an outsider, had been able to penetrate their one line of jargon to write this elaborated history.

“‘You certainly do know that,’ I countered, ‘but the rest of the world doesn’t. The rest of the world hasn’t experienced the difficulties you encountered, the CAUSE of your search for a new solution, nor can they guess what makes your solution either the brilliant conclusion it is or the interim stop-gap, holding things in place until a better solution is devised. We have to show them. We have to tell the story of how adversity taught you that something must be done, and how, through trial and error, you crafted a solution.”

We listeners laughed and applauded his achievement. We agreed that often, too much of any history is skipped over, and once those who lived it are gone or have forgotten, the essence of the discovery/achievement is lost. The solution becomes codified, immortal, while the trial and error, the lucky mistake, the suggestions and discussion around the struggle–all crumble into nothingness. How is it possible to teach the next generations of doctors, lawyers, architects, farmers, cooks, teachers, business owners, and so on? How is it possible to teach the process of discovery, that gathering of apparently disparate talents and approaches, plus thoughtful planning and careful revision, plus the spark of intuition and lucky happenstance–how to suggest and demonstrate this very human process unless it’s written down?

Well, the answer is simple: it isn’t possible. Such a process can’t be merely suggested. It needs to be told, as a story. Moreover, and this occurred to me after our friends had gone, and I lay on the floor surrounded by cats, while I did my midnight yoga: the credibility, the authenticity of the solution is impressed on the listener precisely by learning who created it. This “who” includes all honors and glory already bestowed, but they are not enough. The makers win our respect when we witness what disaster they encountered, how they struggled and attempted, failed and finally succeeded in solving the difficulty. The story becomes their accreditation.

Plus our stories expand our sense of what’s possible. We’re not left simply holding a keypad and 17 characters (or whatever Twitter allows) to tell the tale. We wade deep, out of our depths to practice patience, perseverence, defeat and accomplishment. We can crow with Whitman, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

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