telling stories

It’s been a summer of thinking and writing and thinking and revising and thinking some more. One of the things I’ve been working through is storytelling: if everything is a story, then how can those stories best be told?

Those of us working in academia can tell you that academics are not necessarily good storytellers; indeed, our bookshelves and ereaders are filled to capacity with unreadable tracts and desperately boring articles. The “publish or perish” approach increasingly valued by university administrators who value quantity as a measure of academic ‘excellence’ (values that trickle down into promotion and tenure committees) hasn’t done much for knowledge production; nor has it done much for the art of writing.

But writing itself, as many of us know, is part and parcel of knowledge production. Storytelling is an issue of methodological and theoretical concern. It is not just “what comes after the data has been collected and analyzed”; it is the heart of the research itself.  “Stories,” Thomas King reminds us, “are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” (The Truth About Stories, 9)

And this is where I’m at right now. I’m deeply committed to telling a meaningful story. I want the story to be critical and thoughtful. I want it to matter. But I also want it to be engaging. I want it to be compelling. And I want people to take pleasure in the act of reading itself.

My research is about stories. It’s about the stories people tell about their bodies and about the stories that bodies tell about their people. It’s about bodies become stories and it’s about how stories shape lives and subjectivities.

But what makes a compelling story? That’s the question that propels all my thinking and writing and revising. Why is it that some of these archival stories speak louder than others? What draws me into one particular thought world while turning me away from another? And as I write, how is it that I, myself, construct my own story about stories?

In a 2008 interview, the noted historian Natalie Zemon Davis observes that her research process includes reading stories:

I always have a novel, biography or autobiography going, and read a little every day, and I recommend that to others.  Often I read novels or autobiographies from the part of the world I’m working on at the moment, even though the time period may be very different.

I’ve got three different books on the go at the moment. As I considered them yesterday, I realized that none of them is directly related to my current research. Lisa Rosner’s The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes, with its focus on bodies, history and medicine might qualify (albeit only very slightly), the two others – Lorna Goodison’s From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People and Sara Paretsky’s 2010 Body Work, one of the more recent installments of her popular V.I. Warshawski series – have, apart from their focus on bodies, nothing at all to do with my current project.

But appearances can be deceiving.

All of these books are stories, in the finest sense of the word.

Lisa Rosner’s book has been lauded for its readability, for the way that she has chosen to bring the dry and dusty details of history to life. While, admittedly, the basic story itself has all the elements of the best detective fiction, what matters in Rosner’s telling are not just the sixteen murders, but how such murders could have happened; that is, what were the conditions that allowed them to occur. And so, she takes us into early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, down crowded streets, into medical training facilities, drawing us ever more deeply into a world so very unlike – and yet in other respects, so very similar – to our own. Rosner’s storytelling emerges in the details, details that are so vivid that they awaken all of my senses: touch, taste, hearing, sight… and, in this tale of dead bodies spirited across town from bedrooms to drawing rooms to medical anatomy theatres, smell. Oh, the smells.

Why on earth would I ever – by choice – put this book down?

I’ve also been revelling in the detailed descriptions in Lorna Goodison’s memoir. But while Rosner shares minute details, Goodison evokes a lush landscape of memory and myth, a literary landscape both inspired by and deeply embedded in the verdant succulence of the Jamaican physical landscape itself. Goodison doesn’t just make the story itself come alive, she makes words sing.

And here, too, I must ask: why on earth would I ever – by choice – put this book down?

I discovered Sara Paretsky’s work about twenty years ago. Actually, I lie. A good friend introduced me to SP and her private eye, V.I. Warshawski. It was love at first read and I devoured a number of her books in quick succession. I don’t read Paretsky for turns of phrase. I read her because I love V.I. and I love the stories themselves. V.I. isn’t a blithering wallflower of a woman; rather, she’s a tough as nails private eye with a keen and critical eye. She barks at people. She stares them down. She speaks her mind. She doesn’t take crap. (As an aside, these books would easily pass the Bechdel test…. but I digress).

But the stories themselves also draw me in. Each of her stories brings social justice to the fore. In a 2001 article, she observes that she doesn’t “sit down to write books of social or political commentary.” She isn’t necessarily interested in what she calls “social-political novels.” What she is interested in is stories, and she is particularly interested in telling the stories of those who have a hard time telling their own stories. In this, she likens her work to that of Charles Dickens:

Dickens romanticized the virtues of the poor, but he didn’t sentimentalize the circumstances of their poverty. His books are, as my letter-writer put it, “infested” with social politics—but people still lined up by the thousands on the wharves in Boston to wait for the ship that was bringing the next installment of his work.

A hundred fifty years later, we still live an affluent life with an array of homeless children suffering from malnutrition and mal-education under our noses — the elephant in the living room we all ignore. A century after my grandparents met walking a picket line for the ILGWU, we still have sweatshops in this great land of ours. We still have crime, homelessness, parents selling their children for a nickel bag, and a host of other ills. If a master storyteller like Dickens could find his most compelling stories within that landscape, who am I to turn away from it?

Paretsky may not have set out to write political commentaries, but her books – genre fiction in every sense of the word – are nonetheless, like Dickens’ “‘infused’ with social politics.” They are entertaining, absolutely. But in their subject matter, in their characters, in the way that the various threads of the story weave in, through and around one another, these are always political works.

And here, too, I ask: why on earth would I ever – by choice – put this book down?

In asking this question, I am also asking others: how can I write a book that brings senses to life, that makes words sing, that makes social justice not only meaningful, but part of the mainstream? What can I learn from Rosner, Goodison and Paretsky? What can reading these stories tell me about the art of storytelling? About the relationships between readers and writers? And about the words and ideas that unite them?


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