The art and practice of storytelling resurfaced in the last decade with the development of organizations such as The Moth and slam poetry. By resurfaced, I mean since oral histories became formal text and later illustrated via digital means. When I think back on my undergraduate work in Communication Studies, I keep hearing my professor say, “the medium is the message/the message is the medium.” If I remember one thing, it’s that how the message is received is sometimes more important than the actual message itself. In terms of audience engagement practices, there is increasing focus (hopefully) on understanding what our audience seeks from us (and in what way) rather than cheerfully forcing what we think our audience should need/want upon them…frequently followed by anxiety over ticket sales.
Professional development offerings often include interpersonal communication seminars to reduce office tension and increase productivity. I’ve taken several of them. Social media platforms emerged as highly empowering to the individual and organizations in terms of agency and accessibility. It allowed me to share video of a coworker’s really annoying ringtone rather than actually discuss the really annoying cacophony a spouse’s ten calls a day caused – the ringtone was a squawking chicken at max volume. Apparently neither the spouse nor grown children knew where anything was in their house. Is there a relationship between the social media explosion and communication effectivity? e.g. fake news.
I attended a Craft Talk at Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center featuring Wild author Cheryl Strayed. Disclaimer: given the immense popularity of Strayed’s book and the Reese Witherspoon film adaptation, I completely forgot that while I read much about the book and Strayed, I hadn’t actually read the book. So, when everyone else enthusiastically bobbed their heads up and down when Strayed referenced specific scenes from the book, I added it to my Goodreads list.
Strayed’s residency activities, presented in partnership with VT’s Department of English Visiting Writers Series, focused on the technique and form of memoir writing. Alumni Distinguished Professor Lucinda Roy interviewed Strayed on the intricacies of shared narratives. Strayed discussed the importance of acknowledging the duality that “who we perceive people to be may be different than who they actually are” doesn’t negate our perspective. Memoirs are messy because it complicates the ownership/authorship of narrative. Each person has his or her own journey in life that is uniquely theirs. However, all life stories involve the people in our lives. So, when telling our story, to whom does it belong? Strayed recommended “handling the truth gently because your truth involves other people…the truth can hurt people. However, the truth – as Strayed learned through her legal team – is an absolute defense.”
When we communicate with others, are we using the truth to manipulate a false sense of agency? Or, are we using it as an investigative lens to uncover the whole truth? A holistic approach to communication predicates an intimate understanding of all the stakeholders in a story (or truth). When sharing our truth, perhaps we can consider it as bridge building rather than a final destination. In my recent professional transition, I took special care not to burn any bridges. I soon realized that if a bridge never formed, nothing existed to manage or salvage. Rather than looking back and hoping to preserve some kind of access, focus is invaluably spent deliberately building lifelines. Accessing the truth, or perspective, of someone else creates a shared, embodied experience of an authentic relationship/narrative.
Strayed’s memoir utilized dual narratives: hiking the Pacific Crest Trail paralleled reflections on her life. Strayed said that writing a memoir, “allows us to recognize origins of ourselves and our lives.” These recognitions advance the plot. In our communication practices, what advances the plot of a story line/relationship? Crisis? Genuine inquiry? Rather than scrupulously defend one’s truth, can we include others in the narrative? This is the very crux of issues in today’s discourse. Political parties, activists, and lawmakers seek to enact their own truth as unilateral – I’m speaking to folks on both ends of the spectrum. The truth of a nation involves a narrative with a million leading characters and a million more plot lines. Whom or what have we positioned as the primary role in the narrative on healthcare, civil and social justice, and equality?
Truth is only an absolute defense…when your voice matters. I’ve learned my voice matters more to someone when it is part of the narrative rather than a red-marked edit. I’m also aware that there is a hierarchy of voices that matter which is why diversity and inclusion are crucial for authorship of the full narratives in our communities. In our communications with others, are we advancing the opportunity to understand a 360 degree truth or to superimpose our portion of the truth across an entire narrative?