Your story, but whose words?

One of our responsibilities as collaborative storytellers is to encourage the individuals we work with to find their own language to tell their story.

It’s easy to fall back on formulaic ideas and pat phrases, the kind of shorthand often used by social workers, lawyers, and politicians. Sometimes as writers we resort to shorthand because of time pressure and word count limitations; sometimes it’s because we are addressing a particular audience and assume that they get the lingo.

When a friend starts telling me a story and asks at the outset, Do you want the long or the short version?, I always ask for the long version. It’s only in the long version that the unexpected, non-formulaic, unique story in a singular voice will emerge.

A student I once tutored shared with me a brief essay about his difficult early years in foster care after his biological mother was deemed unfit, the loving adoptive parents who ultimately made a home for him, and how those experiences led him to do volunteer work for the homeless. His essay needed little correction. It was grammatically sound and it covered the ground he intended it to. But it was laden with the kind of jargon you’d read in a child protective services report or hear from the judge’s bench in family court. Reading it I could feel almost physically the degree to which the student had over time internalized this language, how the legalese helped muffle the pain of his childhood, and how sad this was (both the pain, and its muffling).

I hardly knew what to say.

So I focused on his pages and my notes on them, and explained that there are different ways to talk about an experience, and that the best way to hold your reader’s attention and create empathy is to talk about it in specific rather than generic terms, personal rather than impersonal, action rather than summary. It’s how you let people in. And I cited the sentences where he did that.

As I read his own words out loud to him, I saw not the proverbial light bulb go off, but something more like a soft glow at the base of a closed door, a hint of all the stories he has yet to tell.

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