I remember being in Sunday School at the First Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Tennessee sometime during my third-grade year. One Sunday, as part of our lesson, we were given a two-page tale about a boy and a girl, in which they made a mistake and conveniently learned the lesson of the week. I still remember my visceral reaction in reading it--close to outrage. It was not a story, just a moral lesson dressed in narrative clothing for childhood consumption.
At that point, I could not have said what a story or a good story was, but I had been exposed to good stories since my earliest days. I grew up in a house filled with books, the child of parents with three graduate degrees in English between them. My parents read Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings, Ferdinand the Bull, and many other books to me when I was young. I devoured the Narnia tales, Greek and Roman myths, and every comic book I could get my hands on.
As an adult, while Social Work and college teaching have been my careers, stories have continued to be a significant part of my life. In the decade of the 1990s I was storytelling a good bit, in elementary schools, libraries, and bookstores. Now, the telling is occasional, mostly at story slams, but for the last nine years I have been working in the medium of digital stories--three-minute personal stories narrated by the story's author, with illustrative photos, video, and music. I create digital stories and help others to make them.
I still couldn't concisely tell you what makes a good story. You can talk about the constituent elements of story-plot, characters, beginning-middle-end, conflict and resolution, and so on. I think back to what Bobby Norfolk said in the introduction to one of his storytelling performances: "All of these stories are true, and some of them actually happened." For me, what distinguishes whether or not a story rings true is if the story grabs me and won't let go, making me feel deeply and think hard about things, sticking with me long after I have hear/read/viewed it.
There are tales told by storytellers that ring true for me--Jay O'Callahan's story of his uncle, a World War II chaplain who won a Medal of Honor in saving a ship and hundreds of men, and Elizabeth Ellis' retelling of the Demeter and Persephone myth, a version that incorporates the story of a daughter who was lost. There is Darcy Alexandra's digital story "Nowhere Anywhere," in which she wonders about the identity of her biological mother and experiences her verbally abusive father. Many of Shakespeare's and Arthur Miller's plays stick with me. The novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fickry and the movie Moonstruck are recently read/viewed stories that for me ring true.
Stories challenge me, feed me, and enrich me. I'm Jim Winship, and I live in Southeastern Wisconsin and in the world of story.
Storying the Human Experience
Yes, it's a grandiose title. But, as Flannery O'Connor once said, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way."