Several recent bloggers have raised the question, “Why do we write?” I want to respond to that question. Mainly, I think we write because it’s therapeutic and exhilarating. Also, as humans we desire communication with those around us. But I’m also interested in something else. Not only why we write (Step 1), but also why does it matter (Step 2)? What’s the point? Does it change anything about who we are or the world we live in?
Step 1: Storytelling can be empowering for the writer, a form of self-expression, or a way of figuring out the truth. When a story is told, it can initiate change in a community or improve communication about a life experience. Stories have immense power in communities, connecting people to things they may not hear or see on their own. Stories, ultimately, can be archived for future generations and communities. We write because stories can find a way to truth or understanding, raise difficult questions, and spread awareness about experiences.
Step 2: Does the act of storytelling matter? What’s the point? Our whole society revolves around the written and spoken word: the building blocks of storytelling. We go to extensive effort to teach children how to read and write. I am going to be an English teacher next year. How can I explain to my students that storytelling really does matter?
I have recently been thinking about the power of storytelling because of a project I am working on called The Facing Sexual Violence Project, but first I am reminded of a TED talk that discusses the danger of a single story. Chimamanda Adichie, a lover of stories and a storyteller herself, speaks on why it is important for stories to provide multiple perspectives of life. There should not be one story, but many. According to Adichie, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” Without a variety of stories, Adichie argues that we fall into the trap of believing what she calls “a single story”, a limited understanding of whatever it is we tell stories about.
Multiple stories, however, give individuals and communities a chance to think about things in a new way. Individuals who truly listen to multiple stories open up their minds. They begin to think for themselves, considering the perspectives they encounter in stories and developing ideas about how to move something in the world.
Adichie talks of stories as if they have volcanic power. She says, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Adichie’s TED talk inspired me because I also believe in the power of storytelling, which brings me to The Facing Sexual Violence Project, the inspiration that charges electricity through my fingers as I type this blog.
Why do I write and read stories?
Because I want these stories to change the world, advocate for social justice, entertain a young girl or a busy parent.
The Facing Project (http://facingproject.com/) is a national non-profit organization that works with communities to connect through storytelling over a particular challenge or social issue. Facing matches community members who wish to anonymously (or not, if desired) tell their stories about the issue at hand and ultimately publishes them in a book or in some other expressive form. The Facing Project has reached communities dealing with poverty, human trafficking, and many more.
So, what’s our issue?
Sexual violence in Rockbridge County.
W&L student Noelle Rutland brought The Facing Sexual Violence project to Rockbridge County. Storytelling, it seemed, would be the best way for the community to speak for itself. Why does storytelling matter? To me, it matters because it inspires things like The Facing Project. Storytelling propels individuals to share something and it gives communities opportunities to communicate with each other.
As the project grows, I am lucky to participate as Noelle’s co-manager, and I am inspired by the stories we have received so far. Washington & Lee Professor Deborah Miranda shared an excerpt from her story, Silver, with our project that illuminates the importance of storytelling.
W&L Professor Deborah Miranda (Blog: http://www.badndns.blogspot.com/)
For years, Professor Miranda kept her story silent. She confessed, “Most of all, I can’t tell because there is nobody who wants to hear…My husband asks what’s wrong. I don’t have the words to tell him. He doesn’t really want to know.”
For anyone who has a story to share, silence can be petrifying. The longer you are silent, the more you convince yourself that your story should not be spoken aloud. If you speak it aloud you may disrupt the peace, you may upset someone, and you will certainly make yourself more vulnerable.
Storytelling defies silence…
It yells doggedly at the settled earth and the status quo:
“LISTEN. I have something to say. I cannot keep this inside of me any longer. I have a story. We all have a story.”
“I write this story by waking up each morning and writing until I feel myself begin to change the truth. Then I walk away from the work till I can face reality again…I walk away from this story for nearly a decade; walk away with its false ending: the warm old house, the husband, the fiction of a healing that doesn’t cost, but doesn’t transform. I fight transformation tooth and nail. At last, I recognize change as my old friend, Truth. I stand still, and embrace her.”
Professor Miranda’s story shook me in the best way – like when you’ve overslept and your benevolent roommate wakes you abruptly so that you’re not late to class – it pulled me out of my dream-like state into the world urgently awaiting these stories. We have to face them.
(Quotes from Miranda excerpted from: Silver, by Deborah A. Miranda. First printed in Bad Girls/Good Girls: Women, Sex and Power in the Nineties. edited by Nan Bauer Maglin and Donna Perry, Editors, Rutgers University Press, 1998.)