By Monica McFadden
WRIT 1633: The Creative Inquiry of Research | Professor LP Picard
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
In November of 2006, SMITH Magazine ignited the six-word story craze. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s famous story, the magazine challenged writers to create their own six-word memoir. The legend goes that a few other writers bet Hemingway that he couldn’t tell a story in just six words. He wrote “for sale: baby shoes, never worn” and won the bet. It turns out this legend is not actually true; Hemingway didn’t pen this particular tale, and parts of this story have been discovered in sources that predate his era. That the origin of this craze is, in fact, a story itself only serves to fuel its impact. Many authors have attempted the six-word story, and the results are endless.1 They cover almost every genre, and there are even Twitter accounts for them (@sixwords and @sixwordstories). Some more comedic examples include Margaret Atwood’s “Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved” and David Brin’s “Bang postponed. Not Big enough. Reboot.” This trend demonstrates the draw of a simple challenge: stripping down a story to its core and exploring what it truly means to create.
Stories come in an ever-increasing number of forms but lie at the core of human understanding; stories are how we relate to each other. They allow us to live other lives and help others to live ours. Here, stories of all kinds will come together to take us back to our storytelling roots.
1 There are best-selling books (including Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure), Tumblr pages, YouTube channels, Flickr image galleries, and more, all dedicated to these stories.
IN WHICH PEOPLE BECOME WORDS
In 2003, writer and artist Shelley Jackson penned a 2,095-word story called “Skin.” It was never published traditionally. Instead, the story exists only in the form of tattoos on the skin of over 2,000 volunteers: a single word inked onto various participants to create one strangely connected, living and breathing story. It’s impossible to assemble the story completely; not only are the participants disparate, but one of them has even died. The only people allowed to read the story are the participants themselves. They’re sworn to secrecy, so no one else will ever know the narrative. This story has a tangible existence, though only just; the project itself isn’t even complete. But it does exist, the words moving around through life, unread, living on the skin of thousands of people.
Jackson refers to the participants as “words,” writing in an e-mail to the LA Times:
I usually call them words, or my words, as in, ‘I got an angry e-mail from one of my words,’ or ‘Two of my words just got married!’ […] Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died.’ I am a word myself: the title, Skin.
To be part of an ever-changing story that no one will read screams “human!” in a singularly symbolic way. Jackson’s story is constantly evolving, just as our individual lives are, and very few can sit down and read the convoluted story that encompasses its many moving parts. It mirrors the messy way stories play out in our lives and the fact that we won’t ever be able to read the ways in which we are all connected.
Stories don’t have to be tangible to leave a mark on us.2 The mode by which a story is told says a lot about the story itself and its author. Jackson wrote a story that can never truly be read. In this unusual case, the mode is more widely known than the story’s plot. One could even argue that the mode is the story, and that’s the point of this whole experiment to begin with. The form eclipses the content and takes on a life of its own.
One of the “words” in this project, Jess Zimmerman (“away,”), has written about her experience for xoJane. While the project is a fascinating concept as a whole, Zimmerman also recognizes the significance of the words themselves:
When I got my word, I had just decided to leave graduate school, and the man who’d been colonizing my brain for years was moving to another country. I had all the relief and vertigo that accompanies new freedom. That’s part of what ‘away,’ means to me, and thus what it means in the story. Every word we use has a story of its own, one that authors can make use of but that’s totally outside the realm of authorial control.
To think that each word we use has its own history, its own story outside of the one we’re telling, is exhilarating. These stories permeate our rhetoric in ways we rarely consider and give life to speech that usually only exists in fantasy. Suddenly, everyday language is elevated to magical incantations, but with the history and personality of individual people. In “The Magical Power of Words,” S.J. Tambiah explores the nature of words in ritual, sacred, and magical contexts and examines what gives these words their power. He argues that “sacred words are thought to possess a special kind of power not normally associated with ordinary language,” though he wonders how much this is “due to the fact that the sacred language as such may be exclusive and different from the secular or profane.” In the context of Skin, every word, no matter how ordinary, possesses this special kind of power due to the exclusive nature of the project. Each word’s sacred quality is shaped by its many layers of connotations.
Zimmerman goes on to say:
I turned out to know a “the” before I ever learned about the project, but only found out she was a word much later. I ran into “them” and “grows” on the Metro once. I got together with “memorious.” when I was giving a paper on “Skin” at a conference in grad school […] In the original story, our words are nowhere near each other, but in the real story—the story of what words do, alone and together, when they’re set free—we appeared in each other’s texts for a while. […] It isn’t really that [Jackson’s] turning people into her words; it’s that she’s turning her words into people.
Jackson’s tangible story is a unique one, that’s for sure. But in reality, it’s simply bringing to light the infinite interactions between ordinary people. Everyone is part of many overlapping stories, not just the one it seems they’ve been written into. People are messily bumping into one another, exchanging pasts and sharing futures. And when one dies, it does indeed affect many stories.
2 Pun intended once realized.
IN WHICH A BOY LOSES HIS STORY
Serial, a popular podcast hosted and produced by Sarah Koenig, tells the true story of the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999. Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and is now serving a life sentence. However, the conviction of Adnan3 sits on a rocky story, with many elements that don’t add up. Koenig released the episodes in weekly installments, sharing information while she was still investigating and making listeners wait on pins and needles for answers. The mysterious nature of the story shot the podcast to fame.4 The popularity of the podcast5 led to Adnan’s story being pulled apart and examined by amateur sleuths. Adnan’s life story, as well as the other people involved in the case, has been appropriated by the podcast. Koenig portrays him in a mostly positive light, but Adnan has little control over his own personal story. Adnan offers his voice through phone interviews with Koenig from prison, but ultimately, Koenig and the producers have control over his representation.
This begs the questions: Who has the right to tell your story? As soon as you tell your story, does it belong to those who hear it? And do they have any commitment to the way you originally told it?
This question of agency has caused some controversy surrounding the podcast. The experiences of Adnan, a teenager from a Muslim family, and Hae, daughter to Korean immigrants, are filtered through Koenig’s flawed ethnographic interpretation. Sociologist John Van Maanen writes in Tales of the Field that ethnography “rests on the peculiar practice of representing the social reality of others through the analysis of one’s own experience in the world of these others.” Koenig tries, but ultimately fails, to get a full grasp on the cultures that Hae and Adnan come from and the nuances of their lives.6 After all, Koenig is a white reporter for This American Life, which isn’t exactly the ideal candidate for analyzing a racially nuanced situation. Jay Caspian Kang discusses this in his article “White Reporter Privilege,” noting that “the listener is asked to simply trust Koenig’s translation of two distinct immigrant cultures.” Koenig reacts to aspects of their lives with naïve surprise due to the internalized stereotypes she has. In the second episode, Koenig remarks, “[Hae’s] diary, by the way—well I’m not exactly sure what I expected her diary to be like but—it’s such a teenage girl’s diary,” as if Hae weren’t actually a typical teenage girl.
Koenig also blatantly skips over one of the most prominent parts of the narrative—that the Baltimore criminal justice system in the late 1990s didn’t favor Muslims or black men. She’s surprised to hear that prejudice and racism might play a role in the arrests and doesn’t fully delve into that impact. As innocent as these intentions might be, attempting to tell a story you don’t fully understand is dangerous; it can severely warp listeners’ understanding of situations and cultures.
While Adnan is certainly the face of a case that is now being picked apart by the masses, this “story” didn’t just happen to him. It affected a whole group of people involved in the case, and their stories are also pulled into the podcast. Guardian journalist Jon Ronson spoke with Adnan’s family about their reactions to Serial. Ronson says that “Yusuf [Adnan’s younger brother] spends a lot of time online, lurking on Reddit, although he knows ‘it’s just toxic.’ [Ronson asks:] ‘Toxic because five million detectives are all studying Adnan’s voice for clues as to whether he’s a psychopath?’” This treatment of Adnan’s life as some kind of crime show plot to be solved by the public is exactly what’s making the strange fame so difficult, both for him and his family. Each member of Adnan’s family grapples with the stress of the coverage from the podcast in different ways; his father even suffers from depression but won’t address it. It’s not just a story for them; it’s their lives.
So are your experiences solely your own? Well, in Adnan’s case, apparently not. His story also belongs to his community, to Koenig, and now to the audience.
The problem with agency in storytelling is that what’s portrayed as truth becomes fact when it’s the only version heard. Koenig’s interpretation of the story isn’t all bad or necessarily incorrect, but it is what shot Adnan’s story to fame and is largely the only version that has been heard. When specific stories become the narrative for entire groups without their consent, the true understanding of people’s experiences can be completely lost. Adnan’s story may only affect a relatively small group of people, but how much of our history—our world’s history—is told through the warped interpretations of others?
3 I recognize that I should be referring to Adnan and Hae by their last names. I naturally call them by their first names in both writing and discussion, mostly because that’s how they are referred to in the podcast, which prompts an interesting question about using their first names. It makes them both more relatable to the audience, but at the same time it perpetuates the idea that they are simply characters in a story. I’m sticking with the first names here because I’ve become familiar with them, and “Lee” and “Syed” feel too distant now. However, the implications do create some food for thought.
4 Trust me, this story is addicting. I listened to the entire podcast, all twelve episodes, within about 24 hours. As a heads up, to spare anyone the disappointment I felt, the podcast doesn’t come to a definitive conclusion as to Adnan’s guilt (although he certainly doesn’t appear so). The podcast’s popularity inspired a group of lawyers, led by Rabia Chaundry (who appears in Serial), to return to the case. To follow this story, listen to the new podcast Undisclosed.
5 In an article about Serial’s success, CNN estimated that the podcast was downloaded 40 million times during its first 13 weeks.
6 Koenig makes a number of assumptions about Hae and Adnan’s upbringing throughout the podcast. She puts words in Adnan’s mouth about the struggles of his cultural upbringing; he uses the term “parameters” when talking about the constraints of his family life, and Koenig interprets this as “immigrant parents,” a term Adnan never uses. As Julia Carrie Wong argues in her article “The Problem with ‘Serial’ and the Model Minority Myth,” “every positive detail is surprising, while the potentially negative details are assumed.”
IN WHICH THE TROLLS ON MY SHELF COME TO LIFE AT NIGHT
When I was young and falling asleep in my lilac-painted bedroom, my parents would sit on my bed and tell me stories. My mom always crawled in next to me, regardless of the fact that there was little room in my twin bed with me and my battalion of stuffed animals.7 She would tell me “Amy” stories about a girl who loved to climb, the Empire State Building being one of her many conquered destinations. Sometimes we would do “fill-in-the-blank” stories in which I would excitedly start off, “Once upon a time there was a—” and anxiously await her sleepy reply.
On the other hand, my dad—often the more alert and willing one—would tell Troll Stories. They documented the nighttime escapades of the trolls (those squat, wispy-haired dolls from the 1990s) who lined my windowsill.8 Each episode starred Monica, who woke up in the middle of the night to discover that the trolls were missing. She would go downstairs to the kitchen and help them get food and supplies before bringing them back upstairs to the windowsill. Each morning, she would wake up to find them exactly as they were before, not knowing if it was real or a dream.
These stories have left lasting impacts on my understanding of the world. Amy was adventurous and fearless, and went after her goals with determination. In the troll stories, Monica blurred the line between dreams and reality, and used creativity to help her friends. These stories stressed values that I still hold dear today, values that are important to my whole family.
Many people have similar memories and will be able to recall a popular bedtime story from their childhood, a favorite book beloved by the whole family, or a classic family event that grows more dramatic each time it’s retold. These stories lie at the core of human connection and help to build our ideas of who we are.
As a matter of fact, this act of oral storytelling is likely one of the oldest and most extensive traditions to date. As educator and author Dr. Michael Lockett discusses in The Basics of Storytelling, this practice has existed since the dawn of humankind. He identifies one of the oldest records of oral storytelling from Egypt (sometime between 2000–1300 BCE), where three sons entertained their father Khufu with spoken-word stories. Telling stories is an intimate way of establishing strong familial bonds with someone and has brought grandparents, parents, and children together for centuries.
Oral storytelling hasn’t been used strictly for entertainment. It has been used to preserve the narratives of entire peoples. The biblical tales of Abraham and Moses were the defining stories of the Hebrew people, helping them understand who they were at their core. For centuries, they’ve told the stories of their people, stories of perseverance and loyalty, history mingled with myth, tying each person together through a common narrative.
A common narrative can define thousands of people for generations on end or tell the simple story of a single family. The common narrative of my family is found through a past in Indonesia. My dad spent part of his childhood as a missionary kid living in Tomohon while my grandpa was a doctor. My siblings, my cousins, and I have all grown up hearing stories about our parents’ time there—climbing up the volcano behind their house, the pet monkey they had in their backyard, the giant beetles they would tie strings to and play with. All of these little windows into the past connect us to this distant place with which none of us have first-hand experience. Our parents’ and grandparents’ past in Indonesia is a way we all construct our self image; it helps us understand what it means to be a McFadden.
7 Fifty percent of the time, she’d just fall asleep. I inherited my atrocious sleep schedule from her, so now I understand where she was coming from.
8 This was a McFadden tradition, coming from my Dad’s side of the family. My grandparents had a whole shelf of trolls in their old house, and my cousins and I would play with them when we were young. Only looking back on it now do I realize how vaguely creepy they were.
IN WHICH SHIPS ARE NOT BOATS
Readers have always manipulated and adapted stories, but the modern practice of fan fiction is a new take on this. Entire sites are dedicated to fan stories set in the universes of fans’ favorite books, films, and television shows. Modern technology has made it easier than ever to create and distribute fan fiction. This subculture includes everything from horribly written stories in which the characters are nothing like the originals to brilliant writing that explores aspects of a story previously left unexamined. Fans write in alternate universes (AUs), set classic stories in modern times, or “ship”9 characters.
While digital technology has made it easier to produce and distribute fan fiction, the practice is not exclusive to this millennium. The Brontë children, including Charlotte of Jane Eyre fame, wrote fiction about the real-life 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, and his two sons, Arthur and Charles. Charlotte and Branwell, the only Brontë brother, wrote in a fantasy world called Angria. In 1833, at age 17, Charlotte wrote a tale called “Something About Arthur,” the hand-stitched book measuring just three and a half inches tall and 25 pages long. Rebecca Onion, of Slate’s history blog The Vault, reports that, in typical Brontë fashion, “its plot follows two aristocratic brothers, one of whom narrates the story of the other’s romantic encounter with a poor, but worthy, peasant girl.” There’s no doubt that the Brontë siblings would have fared quite well in the world of Tumblr fan fiction, given that they so enjoyed documenting fictional tales of their aristocratic heroes.10
Classical fan fiction also includes E. Nesbit’s work The Magic World, part of which is heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Furthermore, elements of E. Nesbit’s The Magic World directly inspired works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. One story in The Magic World, “The Aunt and Amabel,” follows a little girl who travels to another world through a wardrobe. It’s clear that the audience’s need to add their own voice to a story and to interact with those worlds isn’t a new desire. So why has this desire been a strong motivation for so long?
This deep interaction with stories can give the reader a sense of ownership over the story once they begin to create within it. This is completely different from simply reading a favorite book; fans change integral parts of characters and settings. As a reader of fan fiction, not a writer myself, my perception of these manipulations is that the writers are interested in changing the atmosphere around a character to see how they react. The interpretation of these characters depends on the author, and each one inserts a little of themselves into their fan fiction. Fans can also help a story continue after the film, books, or episodes end.
Until recently, fan fiction existed independently of the canon.11 Today, a web series called Kissing in the Rain has its own unusual twist on fan fiction. After each episode is released, any fan fiction reblogged by the creators on the official Tumblr of the series becomes canon. This is what makes Kissing in the Rain so innovative: fans become an integral part of the creation process. This turns the creator/audience relationship on its head and gives the fans a great deal of agency. Now, their headcanons12 and wishes for the story aren’t just buried in the depths of a fan fiction site; they’re laced into the actual narrative itself.
After going through a distinct Les Miserables phase in high school, I read a decent amount of Les Mis fan fiction. The interesting thing about the world of Les Miserables fan fiction is that it exists almost entirely in modern AUs. This is mainly due to the fact that roughly 98% of the characters are dead at the end.13 Modern alternate universes allow the fans to fully explore the characters in different situations.14 Enjolras, the fierce revolutionary leader, might be fighting for racial equality and LGBT rights instead of for the freedom of France. Les Amis de l’ABC15 could be high school or university students ablaze with the passion of revolution all the same, regardless of the century-and-a-half time gap.
These characters have been entirely removed from their original setting and situation, and yet the writers still pull integral elements of their personalities from the book to flavor their actions. While it may be a very different story, I often find myself thinking that Victor Hugo might not be too opposed.16 Taking a narrative from the past and connecting it to the present is an important way for us to understand events and people in history. Our history is largely told through stories, and the ones that stick with us help us to see famous artists, revolutionary politicians, and even ordinary people from the past as clearly as we see ourselves.
Often, people’s perception of fan fiction is that it’s juvenile and strange and not real writing. But all writers are heavily influenced by their favorite works; fan fiction is just up front about it. Originality is somewhat of an illusion; many works are amalgamations of influences and previous ideas morphed into different forms and drawing new connections. We have a constant need to take our favorite things and adapt them to make them our own; we can’t just be passive readers but instead want to be co-creators and participate fully in the story-making process.
9 “Ship” or “shipping,” short for “relationship,” is a term used when fans pair certain characters in romantic relationships. While this can be a relationship depicted in the story itself, it’s often with characters who are not canonically together, such as Harry/Draco (the Harry Potter series) or Eponine/Enjolras (Les Miserables). These ships can also occur across fandoms, and, yes, can be as ridiculous as Anne Frank/Goku (Dragonball Z). A real person thought that was a good idea.
10 What I would give to see what the Brontë siblings would post on fanfiction.net these days. Do I sense a coffee shop AU?
11 The “canon” of a story is what’s actually part of the narrative written by the author. Fan fiction can be canonically correct (occur alongside the storyline) or go against canon (deviate from what’s published).
12 “Headcanon” refers to a particular belief or idea which is not part of a story’s canon, but makes sense to an individual fan. It is an individual’s “personal canon.”
13 A personal estimation on my part, though quite accurate, I think.
14 Like ones in which they’re not all dead.
15 The Friends of the ABC, or the Barricade Boys. The “ABC” is a pun—the French “abaissés,” meaning “lowly” or “abased,” is pronounced “a-be-se.”
16 This is partly due to the sheer amount of Enjolras/Grantaire fan fiction that exists, a pairing that cheeky Victor Hugo blatantly supported in the book. After all, the two die hand in hand.
IN WHICH STORIES DON’T CHECK THEIR WATCHES
The oldest surviving story is The Epic of Gilgamesh. Carved into a clay tablet by the Mesopotamians in about 2100 BCE, it is likely a written version of tales that had been previously told by word of mouth for ages. This ancient story follows Gilgamesh—part man, part god—through his encounters with many gods, monsters, and heroes. One major part of the story recounts a great flood sent by the gods to wipe out humankind. However, the god of wisdom warns one man of the plan and instructs him to build a boat to save his family and all living creatures. After the flood, the gods regret what they’ve done and promise never to do it again.
Sound familiar? Many would recognize this as the story of Noah’s Ark, but all major world religions have great flood stories. The oldest surviving story continues to appear in modern culture thousands of years later. Although under a vague guise, it’s still being adapted into cartoony children’s books and movies with Russell Crowe and Emma Watson.
Storyteller Joe Sabia explains in his TED talk, “The art of storytelling has remained unchanged. And for the most part, the stories are recycled. But the way that humans tell the stories has always evolved with pure, consistent novelty.” While the heart of the story may remain the same, the shifting elements and its form are always changing. This sentiment doesn’t only belong to Sabia. Christopher Booker explores this idea in his masterpiece The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Booker argues that we’ve been telling the same stories throughout history, from our oral storytelling roots to TV shows and movies today. While there are theories for why we gravitate toward these story arcs, nobody is completely sure.17 Joseph Campbell’s famous work on the “Hero’s Journey” illustrates this same idea—the same narrative of the hero archetype has been told throughout all of history, whether in Beowulf or Star Wars.18 It seems as though these stories are rooted in cultures around the world throughout the centuries because they’re rooted in human nature. Stories are a current running through all of humanity that can connect us to our past, present, and future.
Arthur A. Brown muses in his essay “Storytelling, the Meaning of Life,
and The Epic of Gilgamesh”:
We read The Epic of Gilgamesh, four thousand years after it was written […] because we want to know the meaning of life. […] There is an infinite continuity of meaning that can be comprehended only by seeing again, for ourselves. We read stories—and reading is a kind of re-telling—not to learn what is known but to know what cannot be known, for it is ongoing and we are in the middle of it.
This can all sound very philosophical and abstract, but what he’s saying is that reading old stories from history, like the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, tells us something about ourselves, something inherent in us as humans.
Sarah Kay is a spoken-word poet who often works with youth to help them find their version of this meaning of life through workshops and lectures. In her TED Talk, “If I Should Have a Daughter…,” she describes her first experience with spoken word poetry at age 14:
My first spoken-word poem, packed with all the wisdom of a 14-year-old, was about the injustice of being seen as unfeminine. […] The first time that I performed, the audience of teenagers hooted and hollered their sympathy, and when I came off the stage, I was shaking. I felt this tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to see this giant girl in a hoodie sweatshirt emerge from the crowd. She was maybe eight feet tall and looked like she could beat me up with one hand, but instead she just nodded at me and said, “Hey, I really felt that. Thanks.”
That’s what this whole storytelling thing is about. It’s the reason we, as humans, rely so much on narratives in every aspect of our lives. Telling stories reveals something innate in us as humans, tugging at our need to relate and understand. It allows us to connect on a basic level with people from all different backgrounds and find a personal truth in the tales that have been told for generations. It’s about putting convoluted human experiences into words, a fuzzy mingling of truth and fiction, and having someone, somewhere, say, “Hey, I really felt that.”
17 One theory explored in Booker’s work, shared by many late 19th century writers, is that these stories simply served to explain and act as metaphors for natural phenomena that people didn’t understand. For instance, dragons and monsters in stories would stem from the discovery of dinosaur bones. Now, scholars tend to agree that there’s no one answer for why certain stories keep cropping up throughout history.
18 Campbell fully explores and details the Hero’s Journey in his revolutionary book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Featured Image © David Alonso | Flickr.com
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
When I was in elementary school, my older siblings taught me how to line the crack of my bedroom door with a sweatshirt to block the light, so my parents wouldn’t know I was up late reading. I suppose it goes without saying that I grew up an avid reader, something that was practically written into my family’s genes, especially given my mom’s career as a publisher. These days, I consume stories in any manner possible—books, movies, TV shows, web series, podcasts, or directly from the lips of a storyteller.
When it came to choosing a topic for a research paper, stories seemed like a natural selection, considering my background. You could say I’ve been researching this topic my entire life. This essay grew out of the variety of stories that had caught my attention and were tumbling around in my head at the time I began this writing project. My interest was piqued by the strange forms, unexpected effects, and incredible timelessness of stories.
Everyone has stories tucked away in the many parts of their lives. Hopefully this essay will bring a magnifying glass to the importance of these tiny narratives. The essay didn’t really fit any of the traditional formats, and so it took on a podcast-like form with distinct sections, each one revealing a different truth about the classic act of telling tales.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Monica McFadden is a second-year student from Elgin, Illinois, who is studying Art History and Journalism at DU. She enjoys musical theater, exploring new cities, and painting. She considers herself a somewhat serious macaroni and cheese connoisseur, a position for which she’s been training since kindergarten.
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