The power of stories

Campus is relatively deserted now, and watching all my senior friends walk across the stage at graduation has gotten me thinking about what I’ve learned here at Whitman over the past semester. This semester in particular, my classes and extracurriculars all interacted in a complimentary way. Weirdly, the big idea I’ve gotten out of this hasn’t been some academic theory or new conceptual framework for viewing the world. It’s a really simple thought—that the stories we tell are fundamentally important for understanding, constructing and changing society.

Right now, you’re thinking, Yeah Rachel, duh. I know, it’s not the most original thing in the world. But over the past four months, I’ve explored the idea of narrative and story from enough angles that I think there’s a deeper edge to my understanding.

I only had three real classes this semester—Political Ecology, Environmental Communication and The Nature Essay. Aside from school, most of my free time was spent writing for the Pioneer, telling stories about campus life. This combination created a lot of tension in my head, possibly due to the different expectations each of these classes came with:

Political Ecology: It’s easy to get seduced by good writing, so be careful of that and learn to deconstruct the author’s assumptions.

Nature Essay: We’re going to learn to seduce readers with our writing.

Environmental Communication: We’re going to analyze stories to see what they’re really saying and how we can use rhetorical practice to get our message across when talking about the environment.

The Pioneer: Write stories. Don’t be biased.

I definitely had a few nights where political ecology me got in the way of writing my nature essays, because I was freaking out about accurate representations of everything and the political implications of the words I was using. But all in all, that synthesis has been a really good thing. It’s such a healthy challenge to be critically interrogating language that perpetuates systematic oppression while also trying to write lyrically for a general audience—people who have never heard of things like hegemonic masculinity or gender dysphoria. It’s pushed me to become a far better writer, because I have to constantly think about the subtle implications of the way I’m portraying “reality.”

Stories, to be sure, can be insidious. When something is presented as fictional, it’s easy to not question the social norms it’s reinforcing. And when something is presented as “reality” or “objective journalism,” it’s easy to not look for the biases that shape everything anybody writes. News always involves choices—about which stories to print and not to print, about who to talk to, about how to present the issue in question. And it doesn’t take too many articles like the recent New York Times piecesexualizing and dehumanizing a trans woman who died in a fire to see the ways in which the stories we tell both reflect and shape our societal norms about how people should be treated.

With examples like that, it’s easy to get depressed about writing. But fundamentally, episodes like this reinforce the idea that there is power in the written word. For me, that’s a hopeful and inspiring place to be. I’ve seen this firsthand interacting with friends in the wake of my trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. You can argue facts and logic about immigration policy all day, and you’ll probably get people to agree with you. But it’s in the stories—the human, the personal, the stuff that hits close to home—where people actually listen. I’ve spouted immigration stats to friends who didn’t care much, and then seen their eyes open when I recount a story or show them the essay I wrote after that trip was over. People get it so much more quickly when there’s a narrative. Ditto with my articles about rape on the Whitman campus. I guarantee that the dialogue we’ve had on campus about sexual assault didn’t happen because of the statistics about how many reported sexual assaults occur every year. They happened because some incredible women were brave enough to share their stories with me, and those stories connected with people in a way that numbers can’t.

I’ve struggled a lot with the idea of being a writer. With the world so screwed up in so many ways, trying to make a living stringing words together seems silly and self-indulgent. And it is, to an extent. Writing won’t be enough to solve the world’s problems, and I don’t want it to be my whole life. But if I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that those stories aren’t meaningless. In the written word, there is both the power to define and shape reality, and the responsibility to do it fairly, accurately. In writing, I see the seeds of radicalism, of building something better. It’s not enough, but it’s definitely a place to start.


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