I talk about storytelling a lot with my friend Matt who is a pastor. He recently handed me a book with this quote from Flannery O’Connor:
People have a habit of saying, “What is the theme of your story?” (They) have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning… When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of the story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be insufficient.
I don’t think this is specific to works of fiction. That’s why nonfiction books aren’t pamphlets, but books.
My books get used a lot in academia, and this question is often posed to me as: “What was your thesis?”
To which I usually respond: “Dude, who made my underwear? Is that a thesis?”
Don’t research the curiosity away
Going into both of my books WHERE AM I EATING and WHERE AM I WEARING? I tried my best not to have any preconceived notions about what I was going to see, experience, or takeaway. I don’t want to have my perceived reality fog what’s actually happening. If I think I know everything there is to know about the coffee industry in Colombia, why go there and talk to farmers? I try to go in with a basic understanding of the lives of the people I will be meeting, but I fight hard to hold onto the simple questions because they are the ones that build the foundation of the true story.
I’m not a big proponent of preparing pages of questions for an interview. When I do, I usually ignore them. Good interviewers don’t prepare questions, they prepare themselves to be in the moment and engaged with the subject and topic at hand. Here’s what my favorite NPR hosts, Tom Ashbrook, has to say on this:
“I’m a big fan of mindfulness. I want to be so engaged with the issue that the questions are just brimming, and so aware of what people want to learn that the arc of the show creates itself in real time.”
I admit that I don’t know everything. I think this makes my questions better and helps me maintain the deep curiosity that is the heart of all that I do. Later I dive deeper into the studies, literature, and governmental reports.
But before I can learn anything I have to embrace my ignorance. Trust me. I know a thing or two about being ignorant. The Financial Times called my ignorance amusing and maddening.
Never be afraid to admit, “I don’t know.”
When you write a book, you have to write the book over and over again. You write it in a 3,000-word feature for a magazine, you write it in 250 words for a sidebar, you write it for the jacket copy, you write it on your blog, you write it in a tweet, you write it in an email for an interview, you tell your weird uncle at a family reunion about it. You write it again and again.
WHERE AM I EATING features modern day slavery, an underwater genocide, Starbucks farmers who’ve never heard of Starbucks. How can you write a summary that captures all of these things? You can’t. You can try, but you can’t.
A summary, heck, even a book is just what the author thinks the story is, but that doesn’t matter nearly as much as what the reader thinks the story is after reading it.
Whether an author embarking on the writing journey or a reader reading the result, we each have to stand up and admit that we don’t know something. That’s how we gain knowledge. As a SCUBA diving instructor, I quickly learned that the folks who think they know everything are the most likely to need me to save their ass.
Never be afraid to admit, “I don’t know.”
This brings to mind the introduction of Jerry Seinfeld’s book Seinlanguage (read the entire introduction here):
In a lot of ways, that’s what a bookstore is. It’s a “smarter than you” store. And that’s why people are intimidated—because to walk into a bookstore, you have to admit there’s something you don’t know. And the worst part is you don’t even know where it is. You go in the bookstore and you have to ask people, “Where is this? Where is that? Not only do I lack knowledge, I don’t even know where to get it.” So just to walk into a bookstore you’re admitting to the world, “I’m not too bright.” It’s pretty impressive, really. But the pressure is on you now. This book is filled with funny ideas but you have to provide the delivery. So when you read it, remember—timing, inflection, attitude. That’s comedy. I’ve done my part. The performance is up to you. And if you find at some point that you’re not laughing, keep smiling, wipe your brow, and try to get them on the next bit.
What is this post about? What are my books about? You tell me. I tell stories because a statement would be insufficient.