Six UC Irvine journalism professors shared their ideas about writing and storytelling at the Center for Storytelling’s inaugural event. At one point, professor Miles Corwin said, “I never met a great storyteller that wasn’t a big reader.” Each panel member then supported his statement by telling anecdotal backstories of their love for reading.
But something about Professor Corwin’s statement bothered me. My storytelling interests began at the knee of a my grandfather–a Boston cab driver with a sixth grade education. I can’t recall a single instance of him reading a book. A newspaper, maybe. A book? Never.
I wrestled with the notion for a couple of weeks before finding an answer in a fifty-year-old memory. “Do you like to cook?” I asked my grandmother as she pulled something wonderful out of the kitchen oven.
She looked at me quizzically. “I’m not a cook. I’m a baker,” she said, before explaining how most people are one or the other, but rarely both. My grade school brain couldn’t comprehend the difference. To me, cooking was the act of applying heat to food, but she told me that cooks use intuition while bakers use knowledge. Bakers rely on details and when they get it right, amazing cakes, cookies, and croissants emerged from their ovens. When they get it wrong, breads don’t rise, cookies crumble, and brownies become bricks.
That memory convinced me. Storytellers are cooks and writers are bakers.
Storytellers cook because they lean on gut instincts to guide their actions. Writers bake because it take years to master the intricacies of grammar, word choice, and building large vocabularies. Writers love language while storytellers don’t even need it, as proven to me once by Park Howell who told a story using only caveman grunts.
If you just laughed it’s because you get it. Park’s story has nothing to do with language and everything to do with the human condition.
Storytellers and writers speak to different parts of the human brain. Storytellers speak to our instinctive systems while writers speak to our cognitive ones. Storytellers communicate with mechanisms that execute below the level of consciousness while writers communicate with the systems above it. Storytellers trigger the fast/reactive parts of the brain while writers trigger the slow/cognitive ones. Storytellers study the human condition, while writers spend years learning ways to represent it linguistically.
So, while I disagree with Professor Corwin about the connection between storytellers and reading, I do think that we agree on something more important. The best communicators are double-threats. They combine storytelling with writing to speak to both parts of the human brain: the instinctive and emotional part AND the cognitive and logical part.
Storytelling is a craft that must be practiced. Before I started teaching storytelling, I was telling stories on Griddlecakes Radio, my fourteen year old podcast. Well, today I go back to my roots and practice my craft in a story about being scammed and learning from the experiences.
Feel free to click on the arrow to stream or the three dots to download Griddlesode S14-002.
I was presenting to a live online audience, had just explained Kendall Haven’s assertion that all humans learn through story structure, and then supported his claim with an example built upon Kenn Adams’ Story Spine.
Once upon a time there was a baby girl.
Everyday, someone comforted her when she cried.
Then one day, she cried and nobody came.
And because of that, she cried louder.
And because of that, she cried even louder.
Until finally, she noticed something. When it’s light outside, people comfort her. When it’s dark outside, they don’t.
And ever since then, she learned to sleep through the night.
The example illustrates how humans build new knowledge on top of existing knowledge by rectifying the differences between expected vs. actual outcomes.
After completing the example, I blurted some superlative like, “See what I mean? That’s exactly right.”
Evidently, someone in the audience took offense to my loose word-choice and typed, “Those with kids are not sure that’s *exactly* correct,” into the webinar’s live commenting system.
OMG. “That’s what you took from that?” I thought to myself. Putting aside the fact that my wife and I have raised two children–thank you very much–I wasn’t saying that ALL children learn to sleep through the night this way. I was demonstrating how people translate anomalies in their expectations into new knowledge through story structure. And while I obviously could have been clearer by tightening up my vague pronoun reference–which I likely would have caught had I been writing instead of speaking–this text-based critique felt familiar.
Recently, I’ve noticed a popular trend to focus on the literal as opposed to the figurative. When faced with a new idea, it’s popular to chip at its edges rather than focus on the main point. A shift in cultural norms has made it fashionable to major in minor things, sweat the small stuff, and dismiss arguments based on exceptions instead of the rules.
Historically, there have been two ways to deal with nitpickers: hold firm on the analogy’s main point or kowtow. The consequences of the latter are chilling. If humans are afraid to share new ideas, we lose the ability to communicate–the lifeblood of human interaction. And so, perhaps as an unintended consequence of this fear, a third option has emerged–a linguistic countermeasure designed to shield communicators from the snipers.
Here’s how it works. You start with an assertion like:
Diving into the shallow end of the pool is dangerous.
Then you soften the statement with a suffix, like this:
Diving into the shallow end of the pool is dangerous…ish.
“Ish” has become shorthand for “don’t shoot me if my statement doesn’t cover one hundred percent of your logical scenarios.” Had I been savvy enough to incorporate it into my talk by saying, “That’s exactly right…ish,” I would have insulated myself from the inflexibility of logic unabated. But, it also would have also watered down the concept I was trying to convey.
Let’s consider the effect of “ish” on the following sentences:
That’s just like the last time we went camping…ish.
He looks like George Clooney…ish.
Your hair is brown…ish.
This product is superior…ish.
That was the best movie ever…ish.
“Ish” is like a good-news-bad-news joke. The good news is that it holds the logic-snipers at bay. The bad news is that it debilitates strong statements.
I wrote an entire book on writing strong statements, so let’s see what happens when we “ish” a few proverbs.
A clean conscience makes a soft pillow…ish
Charity begins at home…ish
Discretion is the better part of valor…ish
Laughter is the best medicine…ish.
Lightning never strikes twice in the same place…ish
Oil and water don’t mix…ish
Old friends and old wine are best…ish
Patience is a virtue…ish
Communicating big concepts frequently requires speakers to employ meaning-approximation devices like simile, analogy, and metaphor. Unfortunately, since all will ultimately breakdown when exposed to the corrosive environment of pure logic, they’ve somehow become easy targets for those who choose to toil in the rhetorical margins.
The tyranny of “ish” is clear. Eroding our ability to convey deeper meaning inhibits our ability to think. For that reason alone, the practice must be stopped. Yet, to do so, we must attack “ish” on two fronts. First, communicators must hold firm on the message–refusing to kowtow to the logical snipers. Second, audiences must extend the benefit of the doubt. Rather than attacking an argument’s weak flanks with a barrage of Lilliputian attacks, what if we actually gave analogies, similes, and metaphors a little chance to breathe first?
Or we could just continue to lob hand grenades at them from the corners…ish.
Photo Credit: Translating a love letter from a Boston girl – “Now, does that mean yes or no?”. , ca. 1903. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004668492/.