Saturday, November 20, 2010

Day 324-Storytelling

Dear Mr. President,

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the way we tell stories, and especially about the things the telling teaches about the teller. Most of the people in my life are storytellers. A number of them are writers as well, and tell their best stories without speaking. Others have to be heard, their tales never sounding quite right without their pauses, inflection and gestures. Regardless if they are speaker or writers, or if their stories are fiction or fact, I have a tendency to judge people by the way they tell their own stories.

Some (and I think I often must, unfortunately, include myself in this category) tell stories to impress. We talk about our achievements and often exaggerate (or selectively edit) details in order to cast ourselves in the best light. While I like to think I know when to stop short of bragging or outright lying, I'm sure this inclination is not as effective as I imagine it to be. When I meet a person who is the hero in all of their own stories, I tend to get wary about them. Honesty can be subjective, of course, but the compulsive need to be liked is always a dangerous indication.

Others speak with more concern for their audience than for themselves. A few of my friends have this astounding, uncanny ability to entertain or move or capture a listener with their (written, spoken, fictional or nonfictional) tales. They know exactly which words to choose, which details to paint, to craft their stories to elicit laughter or emotion or connection with whoever they speak to. I could listen to these friends for hours as they cast themselves as heroes, fools or removed observers, placing the telling of the story above the way it reflects upon themselves. The details of any given story are never as important as the way it is told. These are people I tend to admire, to seek to surround myself with and learn from.

One of my favorite storytellers outside of my circle of people I actually know is a writer for The Stranger, Paul Constant. Recently he wrote a piece comparing Tucker Max's memoir Assholes finish first with former President Bush's Decision Points. In it, he points out the self-aggrandizing way each man ignores the consequences of his actions and imagines his own heroics while, (with no small amount of sadness) also noting that Max, unlike President Bush, at least manages to muster the smallest amount of self-critical reflection by the end. Reading Constant's review and considering the way I judge people by the way they tell their own stories, I considered your own writing, and especially the way you tell your story to the American people. I have to say, Mr. President, that even when I do not agree with you, I always appreciate the way you explain things. Your honesty and self-reflection make me trust you, and I think that you have that rare ability to tell truth with more concern for how the audience will feel about it than how it will make them think of you. This sets you apart from your predecessor and also reminds me why you were able to reach out to so many people across the political spectrum.

I hope that when you get around to writing your own memoir of your time in the White House that you are able to do so with more self-reflection and awareness than President Bush. The story of your Presidency will not be about what you accomplished or what you decided, the battles you won or the times you were right. I believe that the telling, and not the tale, will be the most important and most revealing, even should events take a turn for the highly unlikely and leave you just as desperate to rewrite history as your predecessor.

Respectfully yours,


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