Can I Tell You Something?
July 15, 2019
I’m sitting here this morning trying to explain the third descriptor of my project (on stories, storytelling, and storytellers for the American story) and I’m thinking… let’s start with me, the storyteller for this project. Because no matter what story is told or why or how it’s told, there’s always a storyteller, the who and why behind a story. We storytellers choose the sources of information and we paint the picture as we want it to appear, whether we aim to be impartial or opinionated. What kind of storyteller am I? And can my answer to that question be trusted? Here’s a personal bit of info: I think I’m a good person. Here’s another piece of info: I’m never as good as I want to think I am. And another: I don’t think anyone (incl. me) is perfectly good. I return again to my relationship with my dad as an analogy for my project ideas.
No matter whatever stage in my life I’ve told or tell a story about my dad, anything he said or did, I will always be the storyteller. I can never not be the storyteller. I can tell his story, but it will always be based on the facts, observations, interactions, and perspective I bring to it. I can choose excerpts of him in his own words, but I would be the one choosing which to highlight. I can make my best effort to mitigate my motivations for relaying a story about him, and I can strive to have some remove, to be unbiased, to be fair… but I’ll still be behind any story about him that I tell. If I had lingering resentment towards him, would I be willing to include parts of his story that would generate sympathy for him? If I’m guilty about aspects of my parenting, would I want to give him a free pass about some things?
And this finally brings me to what’s essential about this story/storytelling idea and how it relates to my project: I’m frustrated with the American Story as I was taught and I’m frustrated with many of the ways it’s presented even now. I’m tired of the half-stories, obfuscations, manipulations, and just plain lies. I’m sick of the unwillingness to admit hard truths about our history as a country, and I’m just as annoyed by attempts to tell those hard truths by painting our whole history with a broad negative brush.
Telling the truth is hard. In order to get to the facts, storytellers need self-awareness about their relationship with the subject matter as well as an understanding of any related circumstances that could influence how a story is told. That’s assuming there’s integrity in the first place. If we American people don’t have self-awareness, how can we have nation-awareness? How can we get to the motivations of someone who’s telling a story if we don’t even know our own? What should we look for in established storytellers and in ourselves? To sum it up: Humility. I tell better stories when I’m honest about the hard things in myself that I don’t want to admit, and I trust storytellers more when I can identify a ready willingness to admit faults, limitations, and failures. Don’t get me wrong, I look for excellent work, too: top notch primary sources and inclusion of many perspectives. But in the always-present character of the storyteller, I look for humility.
Who are your storytellers for U.S. American History? Are they trustworthy? Who are your storytellers for current events in US sociopolitical life? Are they trustworthy? How can we make sure we know the whole story?
I have more to say about this stuff, etc, but now that I’ve focused separately on “stories, storytelling, and storytellers” in this post and the two previous, I’m glad I’m now freed up to post “whatever” about this project. But I should still aim for communicating with some clarity. Because if I don’t, I run the risk of going in circles like a hamster 🐹 in a wheel, not getting anything done. 😱 And I don’t want that!
P.S. Below is one of my experiments with illustration; I worked with an Emily Dickinson poem. I want to wrap my mind around the concept of pictures expanding on text as I nail down the framework for one of the book ideas for this project.
Beside the one I illustrated, here’s another one:
Some things that fly there be —
Birds — Hours — the Bumblebee —
Of these no Elegy.
Some things that stay there be —
Grief — Hills — Eternity —
Nor this behooveth me.
There are that resting, rise.
Can I expound the skies?
How still the Riddle lies!
– Emily Dickinson