“Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer,” said Shonda Rhimes, TV producer and film writer, in her 2014 speech at Dartmouth College.
“What matters isn’t just that you take risks. It’s how you take them,” said Atul Gawande, surgeon and writer, in a speech at William College in 2012.
And Toni Morrison, the writer, said in her speech at Wellesley College in 2004 “Being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean.”
Reading these sentences probably moved you and brought back memories. Are these sentences stories? I don’t think so, but they encapsulates the story that each of these people wanted to tell. It resonates because underneath each one is a universal truth.
Truth is a problematic concept. Think about the time when someone hurt you by telling you the truth.
But we aren’t talking about the truth as equivalent to being righteous. When truth is coupled with righteousness the only result is violence and conflict. There is nothing about the truth that needs to be imposed on others. As Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Don’t say ‘I have found the truth’ but rather ‘I have found a truth.’”
The truth that storytelling is interested in is the universal truths that we all share as human beings, not the truth that one person thinks we should accept or have imposed on us.
When we talk about universal truths we’re talking about human dreams and desires, human aspirations and experiences, regardless of culture, age, gender or education. We’re talking about how all of us want to be accepted, want to be loved, struggle to achieve things that are important to us, think of ourselves as good people, care about others, want to do a good job.
Stories work because they are not prescriptive but open: they talk about how it feels to be in that moment and what we can learn in a given situation. Stories are designed and conceived from universal truths but can be adapted to fit different people in different situations.
Finding universal truths and making them particular to each of us is what storytelling is about. Great stories are multilayered and use one single truth common to us all to create different levels of experience that the audience can connect with.
As the performance storyteller Mara says, the best children’ show is one the that children grandparents and parents all love. Great stories are meaningful to different audiences.
In my family we have one of these multilayered stories that has been passed from generation to generation. The first time I heard it I was eight and my great-grandfather was 98.
He told me the story of his grandmother, Gregoria, who lived in a remote village in Spain. probably around 1820. After her husband died Grandma Gregoria inherited the only pub in a mining village in the mountains in Leon, Spain. This was not a job for a woman, and she knew it, but she had no choice. She had to feed her children.
To the astonishment of the villagers, Grandma Gregoria opened the pub the next day. Little by little people started going there again despite the fact that it was now run by a woman.
But there was a group of men at the village who opposed her. These men thought that a woman couldn’t possibly run a business. Women should stay at home.
One day one of these men went into the pub and ordered a glass of wine. When he finished and Grandma Gregoria asked him to pay, he refused. He said he was not paying a woman.
There was silence in the pub.
The man turned his back and started walking to the door. Grandma Gregoria knew that if she allowed this to happen it would be the end of her business. She took off her apron, came out from behind the counter and followed him to the door. Without saying a word she grabbed him by the neck and beat him so badly that after that nobody dared to leave her pub without paying.
I loved this story when I was a child because it connected me with my ancestors and gave me the sense of belonging to a family of strong women that had been around for a long time. When I grew up it gave me the courage to stand up every time I thought someone was taking advantage of his position, and as a human rights lawyer it helped me to see that victims can be resourceful too.
The other night I told this story to my daughter. She was crying because she’d had a fight with her brother, who’s stronger than she is. I told her how the women in our family and all over the world are strong in different ways, that she belongs to a long lineage of strong women, and how that strength is right there inside her. “You are strong and capable,” I said, “because you are the great-great great-granddaughter of Gregoria, and that’s who you are.”
“Now,” I added, “I think Grandma Gregoria would have agreed with me that words are better than fists. Grandma Gregoria didn’t go to school, she couldn’t read or write so she had to fight and kick. But you are smart and strong, you can use words. Use your words as Grandma Gregoria would have used her fists if she had the chance, and let your brother know that hurting you is no good.”
When you think about your story find the truth underneath, the value and the different meanings that resonate with others, a truth that talks about who we are as humans, about our aspirations, and think about how you can spin your story for different audiences.
Making the universal particular is the work of those who want to tell meaningful stories that connect to their audience and create an impact. You don’t need thousands of stories to start with. You only need to tell them one truth at a time.