A few days ago, I engaged in an interesting and, at times, challenging conversation about storytelling. To ineffectively sum up a much larger discussion, we spent time debating the virtues of telling stories – attempting to understand and define the act of storytelling and examining possible motives for telling our stories, including bragging, a need for validation, and self advocacy. The conversation also led to a larger discussion of awards and recognition, examining the differences between drawing attention to good work and bragging. My ears perked up even more when the discussion began to centre around storytelling as ‘telling’ instead of ‘doing’.
Stories form the foundation of the majority of my professional practice and philosophy. As an advocate for assessment, I frame the assessment cycle as an opportunity for storytelling, story sharing, and story making. As an advocate for awesome, I see stories in every student and colleague I have the privilege of working with. Whether a chapter, page, or footnote, I believe my role in this field is, in part, to help those stories be written and heard.
What struck me the most about our Twitter conversation was the connection made between storytelling, passivity, ‘bragging’ and awards. The concept of a story seems to be wrapped up, somehow, in the idea of a product over a process. A story is told, read, passed down, shared. All of these verbs are in the past tense, making it appear like a story is something that is finished, wrapped up, or concluded.
To me, a story is a work in progress – a messy, complicated, and ongoing journey. During the conversation, I tweeted about the term ‘narrative’, defined as both a noun and an adjective. Narrative can be “the art, technique, or process of narrating”, a present tense telling of a student work in progress. Sharing a goal, then, is just as much of a story as is a retelling of the journey you went on to achieve it, or, in some cases, to find it wasn’t the right goal for you.
Whether in progress or already completed, the more epic adventure often wins more accolades than the simplest tome. Tales of great conquest and seemingly impossible accomplishments win awards, while the chapters that set the scene are rarely recognized.
While my struggles with awards is fodder for another blog post, I will say here that, in fitting with the theme of stories and storytelling, awards and other forms of recognition are what sell books. Written on book jackets, included in testimonials, or even as chapter titles, awards are not the story, but rather the Cole’s Notes of a much richer, deeper narrative. We aware the product; a chapter, a page, a line; and not the process, leaving out many beautifully compelling tales of struggle, challenge, fear, and adversity. We need to get better at awarding the process, at recognizing those who fail forward, who write their stories one hard fought word at a time.
To address the notion of bragging when sharing our stories, I remembered what a very wise woman told me last week. The line struck me so much, and so deeply, that I made it the title of this post.
You don’t disappear
To provide some context, this wise woman and I were engaged in a very emotional, vulnerable conversation about my defence mechanisms, my fears and my struggles. In my ever present need for movement and action, and my corresponding overwhelming guilt when slowing down or still, these three small words cut to my very core.
I think many of us share our stories, and want our stories to be heard, so we won’t disappear. It is a fundamental human need to be social, to be with people, to be acknowledged and recognized. Our penal system’s harshest form of punishment for prisoners is solitary confinement, cutting us off from something as fundamental to life as oxygen and food. Our social media highlight reels offer the electronic comfort of connection, likes and retweets offering something analogous to a high five or hug. This isn’t the place, or post, to debate the ‘realness’ of electronic validation, but as we continue to climb our way atop hurriedly built pedestals to stay visible, our storytelling can easily be mistaken for bragging, or an unattractive need for constant positive reinforcement when all we want, all I think we really want, is to be seen.
Stories are meant to be shared. We may not know how our book will end and, very often, we may not know how many chapters or volumes will make up our lives. We often struggle to finish a sentence, and are terrified of a blank page. Perhaps we confuse the need for belonging with the act of bragging. Perhaps we see telling as a poor substitute for teaching, modelling the way for others who’s stories have really just begun. I will continue to help you tell your story so you won’t disappear. Your narrative is meant to be heard, no matter how epic the adventure or how compelling the character. After all, that’s really up to you.