Seven Storytelling Sins

I use Grammarly for English proofreading because it saves me from my overpunctuated sentences, but in a nice way, without making me feel bad.

I was immediately intrigued by the recent This American Life episode  “Seven Things You’re Not Supposed To Talk About.” A producer’s mother had ironclad rules about topics that should never be talked about in social settings, because they are, invariably, boring: “nobody cares.” The list includes: your minor health problems, how you slept, your dreams, that you got your period, your diet, and the worst offender, “route talk,” or, how you got to wherever you’ve just arrived at. (In case you’re wondering, yes, money is also one of the seven, but not because it’s boring, because it’s just rude.) The episode was framed as a challenge to the mother: could This American Life journalists go out in the world and find stories about these topics that would convince her to relax her rules?

But it soon became clear that the mother was absolutely right. And I think I know why. Because your aches and pains, how you had to go buy a tampon, why you’re not eating gluten—these are not in and of themselves stories at all. These are what writer Vivian Gornick would call “situations.” They are events that happen, and that’s it. In her 2001 book The Situation And The Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (read an excerpt here) she sets the two s-words in interesting opposition. “The story … is the large sense that the writer is making of his own participation in the situation [emphasis mine].” The situation is the event or predicament, the story is what’s at stake for the writer in that event. Situation: the writer has a migraine. Story: her eventual realization that she comes to rely on the pain of said migraine as a reminder of what’s good in her life. Situation: my father recently bought a used Jaguar. Story: At age 70, he’s gotten over the pathological cheapness that led him to drive Geo Metros for the past 20 years. Situation: man eats a delicious madeleine; story, well, it takes all of Remembrance of Things Past.

In the one case where the producer’s mother did grudgingly admit to being interested in one of the stories, she still felt cheated, because This American Life had had the resources to talk to an astronaut about how she slept in space, and of course their sleep story is going to be slightly more interesting than her average dinner-party guest. I feel her pain: this is the frustration of a simple situation surrounded by a hastily built fence of story. But I also understand why it’s tempting to try to make compelling stories out of these routinely-talked-about situations like eating, sleeping, and getting sick. I especially understand being tempted by “route talk.” Getting from Point A to Point B sure feels like a story; it’s got an inevitable beginning, middle, and end. There are lots of these forms of pre-made narratives lurking about: travelogues, competitions, trials. I have a special weakness for courtroom drama: there’s your exposition (Exhibit A), your conflict (prosecution vs. defense), your resolution (verdict). But often, what happens in the courtroom is far from the complete story, as any episode of The Good Wife will show you.

Still, I came away from this week’s situation-and-story conundrum optimistic. When TAL producer and mother divulge to the dream-interpretation group they are visiting their intentions to try to prove that dreams could make for good conversation, one of the participants, an analyst, disagrees: “Only sex and sports are intrinsically interesting.” By which I think he means that those are the only situations that we humans have an inherent, physical stake in, and thus will automatically surround with our own sturdy story fences.

To that shortlist of “things you should always talk about,” I’d like to add another s-word, “Space.” In a recent creative nonfiction course I taught online for The Writer’s Center, I assigned part of Gornick’s book in the last week (in retrospect, it should probably go first).  For at least one conscientious student, the reading seemed to cause him to rethink his whole final essay: astutely he realized that what he had been working so hard on was in fact a  situation, the stakes or story of which were not quite apparent.

However, that situation was extremely rich, well-told, and intrinsically fascinating: his essay was a first-person account of what a NASA software engineer has to do when the team loses contact with the probe it sent to orbit Mercury, the MESSENGER.  Despite his concerns, it only took Chris Krupiarz adding a few choice sentences of context and framing to move from “situation” to “story.” Most of his work had already been done, in documenting the nail-biting “situation” itself. And the resulting story, “Blinded by the Light”, was published on The Magazine. Read it online  here. And revel in the fact that, like the TAL producer’s mom with the astronaut sleep story, and like the millions who watched Gravity on the big screen, there are still a few story frontiers out there that will never fail to grab our attention.



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