Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Learning from other people's stories

At the Unitarian church my family attends, this past Sunday was the special day that the first graders receive their Bibles – illustrated versions designed especially for kids their age. 

The minister addressed in very simple terms the relevance of the Bible to the Unitarian Universalist faith, which has no written creed. She told them that the Bible contains stories about things that happened to people in the past and stories about how people lived. She explained that unlike some faiths, Unitarians don’t see the Bible as an instructional manual telling us what to do but rather a reference for us to learn about choices and actions committed to by other people.

It occurred to me as she explained it that this is really the value of almost all stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. I have often thought that biographies, memoirs and novels generally have far more impact than self-help books on readers like me. In a way, it’s a bit of a paradox. In order to make compelling literature, each character – whether actual, historical or fictional – needs to have a unique story. 

And yet in order to have meaning, stories must be universal, must have some element that resonates with any reader. So the goal of good story-telling, fictional or nonfictional, is to be able to home in on these universal elements while also telling a story we haven’t heard before in just those same words or under just those same circumstances or with just that same outcome.

My father, who taught English for 40 years, recently told me about a high school junior who marveled over a character in a novel she was reading for class, “That’s just how I feel! But I didn’t know anyone else felt that way!” My father told me that to him, she seemed a little bit old to be making this discovery for the first time; most readers discern this aspect of literature when they are still children. But in fact, most readers have this experience again and again, and for some of us it feels new each time.

When I interview article subjects or memoir clients, I look for what is unique in their story but also what will resonate most with readers. Unsympathetic characters are just less interesting than those with whom we have some small element, however small, in common. As our minister said, Bible stories tell us what happened – whether historically accurate or not – to other people and give us ideas about how to live (or how not to live) our own lives. So do novels, biographies, and memoirs. From each person’s experience, we derive common experiences. And from each character’s lessons, be they fictional or nonfictional, we all learn.

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