How Many Ways Can You Tell a Story?

I taught in a state prison for three years, so of course I wanted to read a December 12 article in The New Yorker about former inmates who are pursuing college degrees at U.C. Berkeley. It’s a remarkable story about serious criminals who have dramatically turned their lives around.

The article brought back many memories of my own work with offenders. But it also started me thinking about…writing. More specifically, I was reminded of Ann Berthoff’s assertion that writing is about “making meaning.”

The ex-cons in the New Yorker article insisted that they don’t deserve credit for their success. They worried that amazing-success-against-all-odds stories about individual inmates might soften the harsh truths about crime and prisons in the US: That the system is inherently racist and tends to drive criminals ever deeper into despair, hopelessness, and further criminal behavior.

Here’s how one of the ex-cons explained it: “When someone reads a story about someone who made good—the redemption narrative—what that does is that lets society off the hook. Because we can say, Oh, look, it works! The system isn’t racist.”

To put it differently: The rare exception who bucks the system and makes a success of his life is paraded around as proof that prisons are doing a great job of rehabilitating lawbreakers. Which they’re not, according to the ex-cons at Berkeley.

What I want to do right now is look at a phrase that ex-con used: “redemption narrative.” We tend to believe that the meaning of a story is embedded in the events. A story can be told only one way. It really happened.

Or did it?

One of the important tenets of our postmodern era is the discovery that we create the meaning of our stories. Psychology has made wide use of this principle. If you seek counseling, very likely you’ll be encouraged to reframe your stories. Your miserable childhood, for example, may turn out to be the impetus that helped you figure out a better way to rear your own children. A seemingly beautiful love story might turn into a narrative of control and manipulation.

Back in August The New Yorker published another article that challenges a “redemption narrative”: The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad.

During the Civil War era, many brave people (Harriet Tubman is the most famous example) faced considerable risk to help slaves escape to freedom. The system of guides, trails, and hiding places was called the Underground Railroad, and it has been receiving much attention of late, with two recent novels and a TV series.

Harriet Tubman and other “conductors” on the Underground Railroad set a shining example for more ordinary mortals like you and me. But some historians are expressing concern about the fictionalized accounts that are so popular right now. Kathryn Schulz, who wrote the New Yorker article, cites numerous dangers.

One is that the “atrocities of slavery” tend to be attributed to “individual pathology” rather than widespread moral apathy. Schulz also discusses fears that these heroic stories will “assuage our conscience, distract us from tragedy with thrilling adventures, give us a comparatively comfortable place to rest in a profoundly uncomfortable past.”

Now let’s turn our attention to our own stories and our own writing projects. You – reading this – have stories to tell and wisdom to share. What meanings are you assigning to your stories – and are you sure they’re the meanings you want?

I encourage you to spend some time thinking about your favorite short stories, plays, novels, movies, memoirs – everything that contains a story. Dig deep. Analyze. Do your favorite authors ever tell their stories from an unexpected perspective? How do they do it, and what is the result?

Here’s a seasonal example. Every year I watch Alastair Sim’s masterful performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 film A Christmas Carol. Talk about a “redemption narrative”!

But when you watch the film (especially if you’ve seen it more than 50 times, as I have), something else emerges. One surprise is that the spiritual meaning of Christmas plays a much smaller part in the movie than you might expect. Far more prominent is its critique of England’s (and perhaps our) social problems.

Even more astonishing are the changes in the way we feel about Ebenezer Scrooge. Despite his stubbornness and meanness, we begin to like him and care about him, even before his Christmas-morning conversion.

To put it another way: Perhaps it is we – not Ebenezer – who need redeeming – who need to learn a new way to relate to people who seem inherently selfish and unlikable.

Great writers tend to prefer – even insist on – a fresh retelling of their stories. Can you follow their example? Try it!



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