The Challenge of Finding Historical Truth

My last post touched on the art of Interviewing From a Historical Perspective as a way to enrich your story by including the experiences of others. But finding the truth in history can be a problematic topic unto itself, as so much of what we think of as history deviates from the truth in sometimes subtle, and sometimes dramatic fashion.

The decisions we make are largely based on our perceptions of the past, which means the only way we can tell a true narrative is to understand the past correctly. As long as we live within a lie that others have told to protect/enhance their reputation or further their false ideology, we will create/enable a new generation of liars. ~ML

In a recent Longform podcast episode Evan Ratliff spoke with Michelle García, and part of that interview dealt with the issue of determining what is true, as well as the difference between just telling the truth and telling an honest story.

Do listen. It’s a masterclass in coming to understand who you are, where you come from, and the challenges of telling an impactful story others need to hear.

How You Alter the Narrative

If your intent is to capture a story’s essence, to reveal a fundamental truth to your readers/listeners, then you need to be aware of the perspective that you bring to the table, a perspective that affects the process of assimilating the facts, coloring the raw landscape that you’re attempting to faithfully paint.

This process of self-examination and reflection embraced by Michelle guides her in the story creation process, and as you will hear, it requires a special sense of awareness – of your beliefs, your values, and your way of experiencing the world in each present moment.

That the facts are all there, and they’re all accurate, and they’re all right, that I began to wonder, just because you have the facts right, does that mean the story is true in its essence? ~ Michelle García

At one point Michelle refers to a conversation that she had with a law professor on the topic of history repeating itself. His observation was one that we should consider when trying to understand any chain of events: “It’s not that history’s repeating itself, it’s that this is the present moment, reaching into the past, to define its future.”

Take a moment to ponder that statement and consider how it relates to the story that you want to tell. You’re writing in that present moment yet recalling a myriad of events you’ve experienced. The conversations, the environments, the emotions, the interpretations. And you’re telling your story for the simple reason that you have a desire for others to understand what you have learned or come to believe, and maybe, just maybe, their future will be different as a result.

The true power of storytelling lies in the fact that your story can become part of someone else’s story. ~ML

Michelle García as Restless Rebel

I’m always fascinated by the journey that creatives embark upon, or become a part of beyond their will, as they etch out the path which brought them to the current moment of creation. What drives you, pushes you, frustrates you?

I was such a rebel. I was punk. I was angry. I was Sex Pistols. I was The Ramones. I wanted to kick doors down. You have a fury that no one has articulated, put into words, taught you how to channel, and so now you go about the world like a loose cannon, which is what I did, looking to find where you can sort of catalyze all of this energy. ~ Michelle García

Michelle came from a small Texas town that in one narrative would have been a footnote, but in today’s climate of immigrant controversy, of demonizing the other, has taken on a more relevant meaning.

To be able to write about where I was from, was, in a way, to capture a spirit of storytelling, a spirit of what it means to be a journalist, in a way that I had not known before. ~Michelle García

Is that true in your case? Is place a character in your story? A character that’s woven into the fabric of your storyline? How has your origin story shaped the reality of your present moment? The role that it plays is often overlooked or sidelined by speakers/writers. Don’t let it take a back seat. It’s part of your truth.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

The Country Doctor on Snap Judgement

America has had problems with discrimination from day one. Look no further than the death toll of Native Americans, often deemed to be heathens, as settlers pushed onward from sea to shining sea. And with the invention of the cotton gin, wealthy landowners sanctified an increase in slavery, economically justifying the practice of kidnapping, shackling, and selling Africans to the highest bidder.

Then we have the egregious treatment of Mexican citizens. You know, the folks who owned a significant chunk of the Western U.S. until they exited south at gunpoint. And let’s not forget about the treatment of immigrants from China, South America and the Middle East. These are not simple histories. In fact, quite the opposite, as there have always been Americans who were welcoming to people of any country, ethnicity or religion. But discrimination has been, and continues to be, a shameful truth in the land of freedom and justice for all.

It was encouraging to see America make progress on this front during the late 60s into the 70s and 80s, but backsliding on the ideal of equality was evident from the 1990s onward. Slowly at first, but rapidly accelerating over the past 3+ years with public displays of hate and prejudice seen in many parts of the country. Displays without remorse of apology.

But all is not lost. Hearts can soften and open with grace whenever people resist stereotyping and instead rely on the power of human connection to speak truth to hate. Whenever we remove the wall of discrimination long enough to forge meaningful relationships, a space for the miraculous appears. A space where healing and justice coexist alongside internal struggle.

Snap Judgement recently broadcast a story that I highly recommend listening to. It was one of those rare podcast episodes that stopped me in my tracks, as I needed to hear the story of Dr. Ayaz Virji until the very end. Give it a listen.

Dr Ayaz Virji on Snap Judgement

Artwork by Teo Ducot | Snap Judgment | WNYC Studios

When Dr. Ayaz Virji first set foot in Dawson, Minnesota, he didn’t know what to expect. He was a brown Muslim man walking into a predominantly white rural town. But much to his surprise Ayaz and his family fit right in. Dawson quickly became home and his neighbors became like his extended family. Then came the presidential election of 2016.

Dr. Ayaz Virji was aware of the positive impact he could have on a small rural town serving as a clinic medical director and chief of staff. And while the community embraced his family upon their arrival, and he enjoyed working with his patients, an abrupt change in the national political climate upset his view of the world, and his place in it.

The narrative follows Dr. Virji’s journey of self-discovery and reflection, of confrontation and conversation within the town after the 2016 election. As you listen to his story, think about the decisions made along the way, by all parties, but especially by Dr. Virji. How did each decision alter the plot of the story? How would you have reacted?

With my white, middle class background, living a life free from discrimination, it’s hard for me to wear his shoes (or anyone else in similar circumstances), to understand his decisions, to feel the pain and frustration that I clearly hear in his voice. What would I have done?

I continue to struggle with recognizing and dealing with the rifts of hate and discrimination in society, but as all impactful stories do, this podcast has altered my frame of reference, and I now view my own story through a new lens. And hopefully it will also make me a better storylistener.

Nancy López on Snap Judgement

Image credit: Snap Judgment | WNYC Studios

Nancy López is a senior producer at Snap Judgment. She started in radio in 2006 when she joined Soul Rebel Radio, a collective of novice storytellers in Los Angeles. Since then, she’s worked as a producer for Radio Ambulante and Making Contact. Her stories have been featured on PRI’s The World, KALW in San Francisco, and Radio Bilingue.

The Country Doctor – Season 11 – Episode 18 – Produced by Nancy Lopez, Original score by Renzo Gorrio, Artwork by Teo Ducot – Snap Judgement founded by Glynn Washington.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but?

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

We’ve all heard this question, or something similar, asked of witnesses in television or movie courtroom scenes. And for anyone who has served on a jury, you have heard it first hand. But what does this question really mean, is it a reasonable expectation, and if so, how does it pertain to the practice telling personal stories?

While it’s true that we tell personal stories to each other all the time – every conversation can be thought of as a story – in this article I’m referring to stories that we plan to share in public; in print, on stage, radio shows or podcasts, and thinking about the nature of truth when we’re telling these stories.

Although the practice of telling such stories has been around for millennia, the desire to hear them, and the opportunities to do so, have increased dramatically in recent years. As we’ve become more connected, and technologically savvy, we’ve developed a thirst for story that seems to be unquenchable.

Millions tune into broadcasts, view videos, or attend live events with a desire to hear stories about our shared human experience. Stories about who we are and where we have been, stories about the struggles we’ve endured, and the universal hope for a better future.

In my coaching practice I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of folks who want to tell impactful personal stories; professional speakers and novices, students and academics, entrepreneurs and CEOs, prison inmates and special forces, scientists and creatives.

During the process of developing their storylines the topic of truth often comes up when many say, “It’s impossible to remember every detail. How truthful does my story need to be?” And their difficulty in remembering the truth is especially troublesome for experiences and conversations that happened a long time ago. Our memory can be rather permeable.

That’s when I’ll bring up the The Moth. I listen to a long list of podcasts each week for story inspiration, and The Moth remains at the top of the list. I never miss an episode. They host live storytelling events, and feature the best ones on The Moth Radio Hour. When it comes to truth, they address the issue best, in my opinion, by announcing during each broadcast:

The Moth Podcast Story Slams Radio Hour

With this in mind I encourage speakers to do their homework and verify everything they can, especially any statistics, research data or historical references. When it comes to the topic of personal experience, they should reach out to anyone mentioned in their story to verify the facts, or at least hear their side of the story to be sure the essence of the narrative is true.

The reason is straightforward. If any aspect of a story is untrue, the entire narrative becomes suspect. One bad apple can, in this situation, spoil your story’s impact. When trust is broken between the storyteller and their audience it becomes difficult to repair. You need to connect with your audience from a place of honesty and integrity.

Should you ever have a desire to embellish your story as a way to make it stronger, I would counter that you don’t need to make things up in order to make a point, and if you feel you do, there’s something fundamentally lacking in your story to begin with, something that lying won’t/can’t solve. Instead, rethink your premise, and dig deeper into your narrative in order to find experiences or related information that supports the meaning of your story.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,
but not their own facts. – Daniel Patrick Moynihan

But there are other elements in personal storytelling – ideas, insights, beliefs and opinions. This part of your narrative is not based on empirical facts, but rather your view of the world, how you see things, what is true for you, which is subjective rather than objective.

An audience wants to hear your opinion – it’s how they connect to you as a person and come to understand the meaning of your story. But there should never be any confusion as to whether your words are presented as fact or opinion. Expressions such as, “It seemed to me“, “They way I see it“, “The way I felt was“, can let the audience know that you’re shifting from fact to opinion. Done well, they will come to better understand the journey you’ve been on.

You must be the guardian of truth within your story, and that becomes a reflection of you.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

Us CAN Do This by Gill Sotu

I’ve always believed that there’s an opportunity to reach inside and search for the beauty and joy which exists within the pain and sorrow of any tragic experience. It’s not always easy, and the gifts can be elusive to say the least, but they are there nonetheless.

Spoken word artist Gill Sotu is one of those rare individuals who can help us discover and celebrate that beauty and joy. In this talk at TEDxSanDiego Gill weaves a tapestry of profound human connections that form the essence of our humanity. That speaks to the power of us. To the salvation and redemption of us. Watch and Share.

Us CAN Do This by Gill Sotu

a part of me was scared to write this
a part of me was ready to analyze
each and every phrase that i uttered
so that the perfect word concoction connected us
covering every bit of our anxieties like a weighted blanket
what we are all under right now is heavy
we are isolated in ways that we never wanted
the interest of this virus is compounding in every country
they say to stay six feet apart
but this disease has no respect
for borders, boundaries, bodies, or economic wellbeing
if bread, a safe bed, being confined to a prison
or the lack of basic necessities
isn’t your primary concern right now
consider yourself really, really blessed
tonight, hold on to your loved ones
like they were your last bit of oxygen
and give thanks to whatever form of spirit
you do or do not believe in
realizing that happiness does not make us grateful
it is gratefulness that makes us happy
for instance
i am truly grateful for those on the front line
working beyond overtime
pulling themselves out of a half sleep
to selflessly shepherd us through this terror
who knew that you are so good at hiding your wings
i want to contribute all of my gifts
and a part of me is still scared to write this
but right now is not the time to be perfect
no one cares if you help them awkwardly
just don’t touch them
your job may have stopped momentarily
but the demand to add value to this world has not
we all have work to do
they say if you ask yourself the right question
you will be rewarded with the right answer
right now we all have the same concern
how are we going to get through this
and since words are my stock and trade
i’m going to ask you to change your approach slightly
instead ask what can i do to get us through this?
understanding that in the beginning
us is going to share your same walls
and be merely an elbow cough away
but once that is settled
the definition of us must spread faster than this virus
must be able to leap social, political, religious
or cultural differences in a single bound
carry more aid and support than a locomotive
in this immensely scary time in our world
our definition of us
cannot afford to believe in the word them anymore
what can i do to get us through this?
they say the mind cannot hear an inquiry
without at least attempting an answer
so i’m going to say this one more time
so that my people in london, in atlanta
mozambique and memphis
and any living in between can hear me
and repeat to themselves
what can i do to get us through this?
we are six feet apart
but this crisis is brought us even closer together
what can i do to get us through this
tree’s gift breath, the sun and the wind gift energy
nature does not give life without also giving gifts
it is what makes you so valuable to humankind
even if right now all you can give is kindness
with some, for some their greatest burden
is the constant pressure upon their spirit
you may be one phone call, one grocery run
one corny dad joke away
from relieving some of it
i know us can do this
i know us can not be the same us
once we overcome this
it is up to each and every one of us
to help where we can
while we’re still all socially cocooned
and when we are finally free from this
us can’t wait to hug you and marvel
at the butterfly you’ve become

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

Unraveling the Tangled Web of Slavery

One of the beautiful aspects of storytelling in the digital world involves the inclination of the story you’re reading (or watching) to magically lead you by the hand, so to speak, to another relevant and connected story, sort of like a squirrel scampering from one branch to the next.

In my case, this act of magic happens after I receive a Nieman Storyboard email newsletter. Case in point, within the December 27th edition Jacqui Banaszynski mentioned that she looks forward to magazine freelancer Barry Yeoman’s annual list of favorite longform stories.

The 2019 version is a diverse and thought-provoking list, with something for everyone, so do dive right in, there’s a special treat waiting for you there. One story Jacqui highlighted was “The Long Road Home” by Deborah Barfield Berry and Kelley Benham French of USA Today.

The 40 hour journey of Wanda Tucker from Virginia to Luanda, Angola also spans some 400 years, back to the days when Africans were taken from their homeland and forced to live in, what was at the time, the English colonies.

It’s a heartbreaking story, reminding us that certain groups of humans, throughout history and into the present day, believe that having darker skin is proof enough that someone else isn’t completely human. (although it seems more logical that the reverse is true, but I digress)

Those in power justified slavery with the values at the time – prosperity, survival, the cleansing of souls and the expansion of the empire.

Having moved to Portugal a few months ago I’m still in the very early stages of learning about the country’s history, especially those aspects which involve colonization. My naive view had limited that topic to just Brazil, but I am coming to realize the complexity of Portugal’s history.

It was the article on Wanda Tucker that opened my eyes to Portugal’s involvement in Africa, as well as their participation in the slave trade, especially the slave trade in Angola. How did I not know this? Did they not teach me this in school? Or had I conveniently forgotten? I was shocked by the brutality of it all, as slave traders would often capitalize on the dynamics of warring factions within Angola’s borders.

The Portuguese gave guns to Imbangala soldiers in return for slaves. Armed with superior weapons, Imbangala soldiers captured and sold natives on a far larger scale as every new slave translated into a better-armed force of aggressors.

Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans

“Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans, Angola, 1786-87”, Slavery Images:
A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora

Unfortunately, it is all too common to limit an understanding of history to our own, localized situation rather than fully embrace the big picture. While I knew that slaves were brought to America from Africa, my thoughts centered on the plight of these slaves once they were living in the deep south – how they were treated, how they were ultimately emancipated, how they are still treated by many – not on the point of origin, method of capture, or the participation of European countries playing ethnically superior colonial rulers. I was missing half the story.

I’m far from done with my newfound quest to better understand the history of slavery in America, as well as the lingering remnants of ethnic prejudice and discrimination that still exist within much of the population. And this quest will serve as a reminder to look beyond the immediate scope of any (every) story created within the confines of limited knowledge.

Do read the USA Today story about Wanda Tucker, and if you’re in the process of crafting a personal narrative, ask yourself what truths lie one step beyond, one lever deeper. They may help you create a more impactful story.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved