Humans are hardwired to tell stories. Because of our superlative intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities, we seek to make meaning from chaos. Whether we’re telling a story about a disastrous blind date or the Geneva peace talks, we organize events using a logical narrative arc. Rather than describe every detail of a scene, we choose what to omit and what to keep. Storytelling is the art of selection. If we were recounting a blind date, for example, we wouldn’t bore our listener with the clink of champagne glasses or the color of the waiter’s bow tie or an exhaustive inventory of the Merlot’s every flavor and note; we’d focus on what was relevant to the central plot. If the story of our blind date was the story of yet another failed attempt to find love, we’d emphasize our date’s flaws: his too-confident demeanor, his obnoxious habit of always redirecting the conversation to himself— not the seductive scent of his cologne.
In real life, it’s often hard to discern meaning: there’s no central conflict, no systematic sequence of events, no easy-to-follow arc. Sometimes the boyfriend we thought would be our chief love interest turns out to be a passing fling; sometimes an interminable three hours on the phone with Comcast has no bearing on our life’s larger plot. But in a story, every element performs an essential part. A description of character, a specific sequencing of scenes, a use of one word instead of endless others: all are deliberate choices on the part of the writer. Everything, therefore, is meaningful.
But a story is just that, a story— not an objective representation of truth. As British philosopher Alain De Botton so astutely observed, stories “omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.” Storytelling is ultimately a kind of manipulation. Just as a photographer artfully arranges his frame, foregrounding his subject and relegating other aesthetically-pleasing but not-so-important objects to the background, the storyteller emphasizes certain things while downplaying or entirely neglecting others. He zooms in and out. But just as a photograph can only capture a small snapshot of a scene within its frame, a story is just one person’s perspective— it’s a version of reality, not reality itself.
Stories may only represent a portion of reality, but they determine our collective experience. Public storytellers like journalists tell the stories that dictate how we see the world. In her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit argues journalists have a responsibility to rewrite our culture’s broken stories. Why? Because if they change their stories, they can change the world.
In “Break the Story,” one of the collection’s most insightful essays, Solnit uses a sharp-witted play on words to suggest journalists have a duty not only to break stories in the traditional sense, but to shake up the status quo:
“‘Break the story’ is a line journalists use to mean getting the scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small— a presidential election, a school board meeting— you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But, of course, stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.”
My favorite English professor used to say there’s two levels to every novel: a narrative and a story. The narrative lies on the surface of plot, character, setting. To get to the story, you have to plunge beneath what is said and dive into the depths of what is implied. This is just as true in real life. Just as we must read between the lines to get the real story, we must shovel away the dirt of our socially-sanctioned stories to unearth truth. Rather than simply perpetuate our culture’s most enduring myths, journalists have an obligation to question the very frameworks on which they depend. Too often the stories we tell go unexamined. And, too often, we only hear stories that reinforce rather than challenge. While certain stories dominate headlines, other more pressing issues get little coverage, suppressed in shame and secrets, either spoken in whispers or completely ignored.
What stories are heard and what stories are silenced largely depends on who’s in power. Take terrorism and domestic violence. Though the fear-mongering media might have us believe terrorism is the most urgent issue of our times, terrorism claims very few American lives. In contrast, domestic violence kills nearly a thousand women every year. To put the scope of the issue in perspective, between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 American troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; in that same time period, 11, 766 American women were murdered by current or ex-partners. That’s nearly double the number of troops who died during the war. As Solnit writes:
“There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.” However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about a thousand a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens and kills us?
Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them. Break the story. Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.”
So why is it that we speak so often of the improbable event of dying in a terrorist attack and so seldom of the very real threat of being killed at the hands of an intimate loved one? In the end, society will only endorse the stories that maintain the status quo. The baseless story that terrorism is the greatest threat to national security identifies a common enemy, breeds fear and paranoia and makes the populace easier to control. Such a story upholds the power of the powerful. If we’re too busy talking about terrorism, we’re not talking about rising income inequality or the disappearing middle class or mounting college tuition costs. The story of epidemic domestic violence, however, exposes the serious problems underlying our power structure. If we were to examine why nearly 40% of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, we’d have to rethink the damaging myths we propagate about romantic love: maybe a suitor who immediately showers you with adoration, for example, is not a fairytale prince but inappropriately obsessed; maybe a man who texts constantly wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing is not head-over-heels in love, but controlling and potentially dangerous. We’d have to rethink how we teach boys to be men: the ways we make excuses for their bad behavior, the ways we encourage their aggressiveness and entitlement. Indeed, we’d have to rethink society itself.
The widespread occurrence of rape is yet another story our culture silences. When we do discuss sexual assault, our tendency is to distrust the woman. The prevailing belief is women lie about rape and make accusations either to exact revenge or get attention. The narrative is women are spiteful and vindictive; the story is an alarming number of men rape and never face prosecution:
“Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy. But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot).”
George Orwell once said “good prose is a window pane”: when a reader looks out the window of a finely-crafted sentence, he should more clearly see the world. Plainness and preciseness formed the pillars of Elements of Style, his definitive guide to writing well. To his timeless advice, Solnit adds writers should construct their own windows rather than look through other people’s. A good writer is a freethinker. Never will he mindlessly conform to popular opinion or march with the masses in neat little rows. Instead, he will dispel the myths that sedate us in a stupor of inaction and challenge his moment’s status quo:
“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo…This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.”
For more from our era’s most passionate defender of democracy, read Solnit on the impotence of anger, the importance of calling things by their true names, and the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history. If you want to delight in even more of Solnit’s lyrical language, meander through her lovely meditations on walking as a political act and walking as a means of replenishing the soul and reinvigorating the mind.