What Are the Stories You Want to Tell?

Today, I asked this of my Digital Storytelling class, after a really productive discussion about the power of narrative (with the help of Elif Shafak, Benjamin Zander, and Rives).

This week, my creative nonfiction students are reading Terry Tempest Williams’ “Why I Write,” and Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” to examine nonfiction’s possibilities for self-exploration, self-reflection, and self-inventory. We’ll also read and discuss William Bradley’s “Acquiring Empathy Through Essays” in conversation with these two. I’ll ask them how the essayistic impulse into the self might extend in the opposite direction, out into the world.

And yesterday in Professional Writing, after reading the students Mark Edmundson’s piece from the Oxford American, I asked them to write about its title question: “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?”

It seemed unfair not to try and answer the questions I’ve been asking of them, answers which, for me, are inextricably linked. I write stories I believe are worth telling, and I believe that because I believe in the power of narrative to create empathy, because I believe it is the truest, best way I have of contributing to the world.

I write because I believe writing matters, but also because it’s the thing I most love to do.

This week, with the new year, and the new semester, I’ve begun working on another revision to my book manuscript. This one — I feel I really understand the manuscript now. I wrote a detailed proposal in the summer of 2013 which included chapter summaries (and in doing so, completely restructured the chapters) and it was an incredibly useful exercise. I can see the book in a way I’ve been trying to for the 5+ years I’ve been working on — first, with an outline, then with poster-sized, color-coded charts, then with pieces of paper I taped up on my office wall into a Freytag plot structure, then with aNOTHER outline — and now, with chapter summaries.

At any rate, I know what the book needs now, and I’ve been working on it, writing new material to elongate and deepen the narrative, and rearranging that with the existing content to make it whole.

And it’s hard. I mean, I know. Writing is always hard. But I have been at this book for so long, and it’s still *just* in the revision stage (it’s basically constantly living in the revision stage). So on my drive to campus this morning, after a productive, but slightly difficult morning writing, I decided to spend some time thinking about why I was writing this story.

Why this book matters. Why I care enough about it to still be working on it, five and a half years after I began.

I told my students today it was ok to start big, so I’m going to start big: I want to tell a story that illuminates.

Yes, I mean that I want my readers to learn something from the book. I want them to feel they’ve gotten something from the story they didn’t know before. In the case of The Vegetarian’s Guide, this could be something about the way food is made / grown in modern America, or it may be a way of thinking about food, an ethical, environmental, humanistic framework of thought they hadn’t considered.

And yes, I want to illuminate as in, to expose the dark corners. I want people to know how awful some of the things they’ve eating are (sorry! but it’s gross whether you look at it or not!), and I want them to see the hypocrisy of the way we treat migrant people (who bring us our food), and the land that feeds us. I want to show them what’s wrong.

But when I say “illuminate,” I also mean I want to write a story that gives light.

I want to tell a story that shows off the good guys: because there are good guys in the American food scape, incredibly good people, and they are doing hard work with little reward because they believe it is the virtuous path and I think that kicks ass and I want to show off for them.

I want my book to be a place of light, a place of wonder. I want to tell the stories of the most beautiful and fascinating things I’ve discovered: the ballet of butchery, the slow arc of a fly-fishing line, the worship of a hunt, the smell of soil. The transcendent, kaleidoscopic power of a community.

Yeah, I want to tell that story. I’m so lucky that I am.

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