Storytelling has long been part of the academic world.
The anthropologist narrates a cockfight in Bali. The economist tells the story of Google buses in San Francisco. The sociologist follows an immigrant Southeast Asian family en route to rural Mississippi.
Stories form the basis for the understanding of another culture, or for the analysis of local economic or social change as told by an expert.
But as stories, and within the craft of storytelling itself, they perform the key function of representing the immediacy and, therefore, the importance of the story: its details may resonate with the audience even beyond its academic meaning.
Independent of the academy, storytelling has taken a new turn, a democratic turn in the most positive sense, in the age of the internet.
In the fall of 2016, I was lucky enough to teach a Freshman Seminar, a one-unit, pass/no pass class. The one I designed was called “What's Your Story?"
Its target audience included first-year students who were looking to expand their schedules and their horizons in their first semester at Cal.
Some joined because they already loved to tell and write their own stories. Others joined because they considered themselves “boring storytellers,” and were hoping to sharpen their storytelling skills but were uncertain that their stories mattered.
But telling stories should matter to developing student writers (and their writing teachers). As stated in the position statement on storytelling by the National Council of Teachers of English:
Students who search their memories for details about an event as they are telling it orally will later find those details easier to capture in writing. Writing theorists value the rehearsal, or prewriting, stage of composing. Sitting in a circle and swapping personal or fictional tales is one of the best ways to help writers rehearse. (NCTE, 1992)
Student writers already write or rehearse their writing in the wider storytelling circle of the internet. Storytelling in the electronic medium of the internet is especially suited to youth culture. Think of the ways in which text messaging, instagrams, snapchats, and tweets have captured the attention of adolescents, and have created networks for adolescents to express their stories to each other, and have stimulated them to do so.
And while electronic networks have facilitated the private messages of one adolescent to another, they also bring to the fore public messages from young adults: based on themes of loneliness, alienation, bullying, stress, and then also young adults' reslience in the face of these pressures, not always in the voice or in the control of young adults themselves even if these messages command the attention of an adult audience.
In this course (L&S 24), students developed an understanding of the forms, beyond text messaging and snapchats, in which they might share their stories: a number of web-based formats such as blogs, graphic fiction, and video.
Blogs borrow on earlier written forms, the confessional narrative or locked diary, and convert them into a medium available for a wide audience across the internet, not only for a young community, but also for the general public. At their best, they elevate private experience into public discourse.
Graphic fiction (and its cousin: the comic) is a form that speaks to a youth audience and so might be made into a mouthpiece for that same audience.
Video is a technological device, sometimes associated with the amateur, and with the amateur’s need for immediate, unmediated expression.
Academics have traditionally told the stories for others who could not tell their own stories themselves. These others didn’t have access to media and could not speak with the authority of the academy.
The internet has the potential to democratize publication and to offer a platform for the disenfranchised to speak.
The internet cannot, however, compel an audience to listen. It is too random a place for attention to be paid, except to the politicians and corporate interests who already command public attention.
Here I present a few student voices, in a confessional mode, in their raw immediacy, in a freewheeling approach to storytelling with the hope that you might listen, on an academic website that can bring a new form of student writing to democratic life.
Students in the class contributed to a collaborative blog, in which they explored personal stories, shared stories they’d discovered, and used images as inspirations for stories. The following was an original story, sparked by the idea of a piece of lettuce. (Stories are everywhere.)
one looks for another
by Betty Huang
When I was eating hotpot with my friend, she said that she like the sole fish because the name of this fish in Chinese sounds like lonely fish. However, I personally thought that the lettuce under the meat is lonelier. For the meat, it is the opposite. For diners, it is the gift. For the cook, it is just a supporting role for the dish. At last, even the lettuce does not know what it is and cannot control its life.
Some of the lettuces just want to have simple lives and do not want to become a dish as others. Waiting for the diner finishing a glass of beer, the lettuce jumps into the hotpot. Moreover, the lettuce cannot complain to other vegetables since there is only a part of green which is itself in a dish of red. I think it may also want to get the sunshine on the ground, drink the rain from the sky, and eat the fertilizer which is made of people's feces. Then the lettuce can live happily like the carrots and the spinach, like all the others which have their partners.
Who are you? Where are you come from? Where will you go? The lettuce cannot explain two of these three questions. I really think that the lettuces which are under the meat are so lonely.
I sometimes feel myself like a piece of lettuce. In the world whose most part is red, I am the outlier. I stand inside the people with the feeling that I cannot share with anybody. They all just care about their only red part as a piece of meat. That red is so bright that being a green part seems like too strange and unsocial.
I feel kind of lonely. The loneliness of one person is not loneliness. When one person tries to find another one, this is real loneliness.
Graphic fiction, the combination of drawing and writing, and often not fictional at all, gives students a chance to explore how image connects to story. In assigning graphic fiction, the focus is not on artistic prowess, but on visualizing a story, and augmenting its meaning with drawings, either simple or complex. Linda Barry, in her book Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, explains about asking a group of students of mixed ability to draw:
Some hands have been at it for awhile but others are so new to the game that no particular style of drawing has had a chance to take root. I know if I can just keep them drawing without thinking about it too much, something quite original will appear (almost by itself). (2014, p. 21).
The students were free to choose any story they wished, but were asked to think of stories that had an emotional core--something meaningful that would connect to another person, whether it was humorous, sad, or any other emotion they drew upon. This example was expertly drawn and told by Sharon Pan.
Creating digital video, once a large undertaking, has become second nature to most students, and can be accomplished on smart phones, laptops, or tablets. Again, students were free to develop a narrative of their choosing, but one that would connect with an audience. This video, by Karina Chang, addressed the assignment completely. (A transcript to this video is found at the bottom of the page.)
One of the benefits of a freewheeling approach to storytelling is that, like Forrest Gump’s chocolates, you never know what you're going to get.
But what you get, if expressed in a meaningful form, matters, and may even matter in surprising and unexpected ways, so that, each story, like each chocolate, is a pleasure.
Thanks to the students of L&S 24 for their willingness to share their stories and their permission to use the work presented here in their unedited forms.
Suggested reading on storytelling
Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, Linda Barry, Drawn and Quarterly, 2014.
The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall, Mariner Books, 2012.
Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community, (4th updated edition), Joe Lambert, Routledge, 2012.
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud, William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994.
A letter to the meme from two years ago.
You will think that you are at rock bottom. You’re not.
Rock bottom will come for a week during senior year, when you don’t know how to stay alive.
Rock bottom will probably come five years down the line, and a couple times after that.
And yes, you’ll still have those nights.
You will have the most insane worries. You worry all the time.
And, you’ll be sad. Not all the time, but a lot.
You’ll still have those nights where the panic attack hits you and you’ll spend the rest of the night trying to piece yourself back together, trying to wrap yourself in sadness, and really just ride the waves deep.
But there is happiness.
There’s something more than happiness, to be honest.
You’re going to meet two of your best friends in the next year, and you’re going to work with these seven other individuals and make something beautiful and original and genuine and something that’s very real, very tangible.
You’re going to move to the other side of the country, and you’re going to be lonely. It’s going to be hard, but you’ll have this really sassy character of a roommate, who will keep your head above the water.
And, let me tell you this: there’s that incredible feeling of human experience, a feeling like you have the whole world ahead of you, and you’re on the edge of something amazing, of being so in the moment that nothing else matters, that the noise of anxiety quiets to a standstill. Of sitting around a kitchen counter, having onions and eating hot pepper flakes with a few other people, trying to fake tears for a film scene. Of convincing your actor to get a bucket of red paint thrown at him, even though he thinks you’re a little crazy.
You will want to know what comes next, and I think that’s something really beautiful. It will take work, and it will take sadness, and it will take people to really get you there.
Above all else, stay close to the things that make you feel alive.