There are certain conversations that one vividly remembers years after they happen. Perhaps those are turning points in one’s life, even though we may not realize it in the moment.
This one conversation happened when I was at a missionary training conference. I ran into a staff member in the buffet line, a gentleman on the older side of middle age. He asked me what I enjoy doing in my spare time and I told him about my writing.
He then told me how powerful story can be. It allows someone to let their defenses down. The reader becomes the character and for a brief moment of suspended time, new ideas can enter unheeded into the reader’s mind. It’s like a back door. New ideas sneaking around old prejudices.
Perhaps having someone outside of the writing world affirm something I already knew stuck with me. I am not generally a fan of message fiction. It’s too obvious. It lacks the subtle artistry of weaving together a story and trusting the message to the minds of the readers. Charles Dickens was a master at hitting social issues squarely in the jaw with his writing. He didn’t talk about the right or wrongs, he showed them play out in a person’s life.
Like Oliver Twist, an orphan who experienced people who hurt him and helped him. Or David Copperfield who went through quite a difficult life. Or the various characters in Tale of Two Cities, where Dickens shows the challenges faced within the French Revolution. As we read these stories, it is like we live the life of these characters. We come to identify with them and by the end, their story has become ours.
In communication, this concept shows up in several places, but one of my favorites is in a theory called Coordinated Management of Meaning. Basically, it’s the idea that each of us has a story, events in our life that make us who we are in this moment. When we interact with other people, we interact with someone at a point of time within that story. We don’t know their whole story and they don’t know ours. But within that communication moment, everything we do is because of our past. The meanings behind the words we use, the labels we place on the other person, how we react to the situation – it’s all because of our story.
Now, when we come to learn another’s story, it allows us to have a great understanding and thus compassion when interacting with that person. That is another reason story is so powerful. It lets us interact with many different people we might never interact with in our normal walks of life. We see their story. We hear their thoughts. These fictional people become a part of us. Then we take the understanding they have imparted to us and carry it with us into conversations with living people.
Story. It’s a powerful tool. It can wielded carelessly or skillfully. It can manipulate as well as teach. But in the end, we remember the lives we come across because story has made them a part of us.