I like to think of my SJSU MLIS as a master’s in story-listening, story-collecting and story-keeping. My other master’s degree is in storytelling. Not just any old kind of storytelling: TRUE STORY storytelling. My MFA from Sarah Lawrence College is in creative nonfiction, a phrase that often confuses people. Creative nonfiction is paying attention to HOW you tell true stories, like memoirs compared to autobiographies. Both are a first person account of a life. Memoirs are a slice of that life captured in artfully described vignettes, ones that are told deliberately using the tenants of fiction such as plot, setting, characters, dialogue. Autobiographies, on the other hand, are a chronological account of a life from birth to present, with a reportage of the people, places and events that shape that life. This is not to say that autobiographies are not well written or deliberately written, but the emphasis on craft separates memoirs as a distinct genre.
I have been writing stories since I could form sentences. But when I discovered creative nonfiction as its own thing, it was as if the world cracked open and all of the power and beauty of telling true stories baptized me, forever amen. I haven’t been able to write fiction since. When I decided to give myself the generous gift of an MFA, I claimed in my applications that I needed to tell the stories of those without a voice (I had spent the past 8 years working with individuals of all ages with all kinds of disabilities). But then, at Sarah Lawerence, I spent two years writing stories about my life because, I learned, that my brand of creative nonfiction filters the world through my personal narrative. I had the great privilege to support the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library this way, by infusing my personal narrative with universal truths about the transformative power of libraries in a blog called, you guessed it, The Vertical File. While that blog no longer exists, an article about the blog lives here. My first essay for the Friends, The Transformative Transforms (the end of which, I admit, still makes me well up) was featured as one of the first posts in Real Stories on the ALA’s Libraries Transform website. This gift of mine, the telling of true stories, is perhaps the best thing I can offer my future library.
Humans beings love stories. We love the telling and the listening. Dave Isay, creator of StoryCorps said “you can find the most amazing stories from regular people. All you have to do it ask them about their lives and listen. … Most people love to be listened to because it tells them how much their lives matter” (StoryCorps, 2015). Storytelling, besides being validating, is also one of the best ways to learn. In INFO 254 Information Literacy and Instruction with Professor Ellyssa Valenti, we studied how stories enrich instruction in powerful ways. One of our class readings shaped my approach to instruction for the entire semester. In it, Cook and Klipfel (2015) stated that learning is best retained and transferred when teaching is planned around five principles:
Principle 1: Create a problem context
Principle 2: Do less
Principle 3: Build a narrative
Principle 4: Focus on deep structure
Principle 5: Active learning is a practice of deep structure (pp. 36-39)
It was Principle 2 and Principle 3 that became my guiding light: Do less and do it with a story! If you think about it, at its most basic, storytelling is an organizing principle. Narratives have shapes and parameters, temporality and directionality. Narratives are a three-dimensional way to portray two-dimensional information. Information, like life, just makes more sense when told through a story.
Of course our storytelling love affair does have a dark side. When we identify too strongly with the stories we are telling ourselves and others or we believe the stories we make up about other people, it can fix us into said story, into a character or characterization, even when it no longer serves us or causes harm… but that’s, to quote one of my favorite childhood books and movies, The Neverending Story, “another story and shall be told at another time”.
Carlson and Macchion (2020) quoted Jimmy Neil Smith, the founder fo the International Storytelling Center, as having said, “We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling”. It is so true. Before books, our history was preserved and passed down in mankind’s early history through the oral recitation of stories. With the mass printing of our stories came the democratization of information and knowledge, and with it the democratization of society. To say stories are powerful is an understatement. As Weinberger (1999) wrote: “If you don’t have a story, you don’t have understanding” (Telling Stories section, para 5).
Take a minute to think of your childhood, your life narrative. What stories do you remember? What stories do you tell? Maybe the best question is: what stories do you want to tell?
Stephens (2020) said: “Story-based experiences of all kinds can increase listeners’ understanding of diverse groups, demonstrate the value of everyones’s experience, and remind listeners of their shared humanity” (Stuff section, para 2). We all need to be reminded of our shared humanity, especially in the Age of Information and in the minefield of social media. Here are a few story collections to start off with:
- My stories: It’s Complicated. Life.
- Americans’ stories: StoryCorps
- New Yorkers’ stories Humans of New York
- Unexpected stories: The Human Library
- Institutionalized stories: International Storytelling Center
Stephens (2019) wrote in his collection, Wholehearted Librarianship: “Libraries have always been about access to stories of the world, collected, cataloged, and placed on a shelf waiting to be discovered” (p. 92). What a gift. And what a responsibility. This story-keeping joins the list of responsibilities placed on libraries today, including access, equity and inclusion. Stephens (2019) continued, discussing “initiatives hosted by librarians to bring people together in a social atmosphere to listen to and reflect on narratives”, the “importance of tapping into the collective voice of our communities”, and “the creative storytelling angle [that] seems to cry out for more program opportunities” (p. 92, 93, 95 respectively). All of these are ways librarians, as stewards of stories, can leverage our love and the lure (and lore) of storytelling and foster that connectivity–to ideas, information and each other–that we all seek when we enter through the library’s physical or virtual doors.
A librarian friend of mine posted once on Instagram that people assume that as a librarian, she must love books. And while that is true for her, what really brought her to librarianship is that she loves “a good story”. Every patron who enters a library has one. And librarians are privileged enough to be entrusted with them: users ask us to listen to their stories, help tell their stories, and even, in subtle ways, be a character in their stories. A library is really a house of the people’s stories. As Macchion (2020) said “libraries change lives every single day, multiple times a day”, to which I add, through the telling, listening and keeping of our community’s stories. Stephens (2019) encourages libraries to “actively gather the stories of your users as part of the collection in order to define and share the human fabric of the community” (p. 78). Imagine those who encounter these stories. That tear-jerking end of my first library essay also fits here: “What will they learn? How will it change them? How will it save them? And how will that, in turn, change–and maybe even save–all of us?” (McPherson, 2015).
Carlson, K. & Macchion, F. (2020). Library 2.0: The Power of Stories. [Presentation]. https://youtu.be/dvZlTRTVX10
Cook, D. B., & Klipfel, K. M. (2015). How do our students learn? An outline of a cognitive psychological model for information literacy instruction. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 55(1), 34. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=110350329&site=ehost-live
Ende, M. (1983). The Neverending Story. New York: Doubleday & Co.
McPherson, J. (2015). A Mom, a Boy and a Library: The Transformative Transforms. ALA Libraries Transform Real Stories. http://www.ilovelibraries.org/librariestransform/mom-boy-and-library-transformative-transforms
StoryCorps. (2015). An Introduction to StoryCorps from our founder Dave Isay. [Animated video]. https://youtu.be/KGCD1XR0WPk
Stephens, M. (2020). Office Hours: the power of stories part 2. https://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/office-hours-the-power-of-stories-part-2/
Stephens, M. (2019). Wholehearted Librarianship: Finding Hope, Inspiration, and Balance. ALA Editions.
Weinberger, D. (1999). Chapter 5: The Hyperlinked Organization in Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger’s The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. https://www.cluetrain.com/book/index.html
7 thoughts on “Storied”
I love all of this so much! Your opening line grabbed me from the start, and your journey through nonfiction storytelling was so compelling. Thank you for this amazing writing and for your passion to tell true stories. It will be a gift for your future library.
Hi @mhannum! Thanks so much for tuning in and thank you for such supportive feedback. It really lands in my heart with sweetness and gratitude! This piece was actually hard for me to write. I had too many things to say about stories. It is the same way I felt when I write my first personal library essay. So many things! I had to keep reminding myself to do less with my story. LOL. Thanks again! Julie
I struggled a lot with creative nonfiction when I was getting my undergrad degree in Creative Writing. My heart lived in fiction at that point, and the honesty that I felt the creative nonfiction demanded (and deserved; vulnerability is an amazing thing that opens a line to stories – a friend of mine gifted me with Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass a while back, and one of the things he says is to write as if your chest is held just a *little* too open) was an uncomfortable hurdle for me to get over since, I think, I really wasn’t at all ready to open up my stories to anyone when I was 18-20. It’s that honesty that draws me in now and that I love seeing in the stories that libraries are telling. Knowing that those stories are there for people who will find them when they need them is a beautiful thought, and one I hope to support through all this work.
@madisonmalear thank you so much for tuning in and for your insight on the vulnerability it takes to tell true stories. I appreciate your vulnerability in your comment!! I also love how unique we all are, like how you struggled with nonfiction while I continue to struggle with fiction. When I was younger, I was definitely an oversharer, some of which was cringe worthy for sure. The only reason I didn’t scare my husband away was because he was warned of my oversharing beforehand. I’ve pulled back (quieted down?) quite a bit as I’ve aged. Being vulnerable with my fellow humans, though, is just where my heart wants to live!! I would love to have a part in making sure that we all have the space to be vulnerable together, like information seekers in a library. 🙂
I love this reflection and your passion for telling the stories of others. Like your librarian friend, it seems that a lot of us are driven by the love of the story. So much of what led me to the MLIS was genealogy work and piecing together multigenerational stories. 🙂 But you have given me some new ideas to explore. Thanks for sharing your essay, too—I know of Patrick Remer from 260A; we did a Zoom session about storytelling with him!
“This gift of mine, the telling of true stories, is perhaps the best thing I can offer my future library.”
Oh yes! In like the way you think. Make this a big part of the story you tell with your application, cover letter, resume and interview.
Trotting off to read your piece at Real Stories.