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What Good Are Stories?

As my class and I were setting out refreshments for the evening, one of the participating students, a twelve-year old boy, strode in, twenty minutes early, his mother following behind, looking exasperated. “Where’s Professor King?” he yelled. My class pointed toward where I was pouring juice. He walked over to me, looked me right in the eye, and said, “I just want you to know that I hate The Stories Project. I hate stories and so does your class. You’ve been making us all miserable the whole semester with all this stories business.” My class gasped, cringed, and scuttled toward the wall. I restrained my impulse to laugh. I could tell this issue was important to him. I could also see his mother’s look of horror at her son’s “rude” behavior.

“What’s making all of you so miserable?” I asked, treating his question as seriously as if it had been asked in class by one of my university students.

“Well, for one thing, what good are stories? There’s no right or wrong answer when you talk about them. They have no use when you do math or science. They just take up time and confuse everyone. We’d all be a lot better off if we didn’t have to write stores. And what’s the use of writing stories anyway? You never need them when you’re grown up. What do I need stories for?”

My class watched, open-eyed and open-mouthed. His mother looked like she wanted to disappear into the woodwork. The boy was so angry at me he could hardly contain himself.

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” I asked.

My question seemed to come out of nowhere and initially confused him. Then he said proudly, “I want to be an engineer. I want to build bridges.”

“Great. Let’s say that you’re an engineer and your company is going to build a bridge between community A and community B. Town meetings are held in each community and you are the guest speaker. Your job is to convince the townspeople that where you decide the bridge should be built is the best place.” He smiled and nodded.

“So, what do you say to these people?” He looked puzzled.

“Are you going to tell them about all the structural and mechanical details which most of them probably won’t understand?” He looked doubtful. “Are you going to tell them how much it will cost and how the construction will impact them?” He bit his lip. “Are you going to tell them how good an engineer you are and why they should do what you tell them?” He looked thoughtful, and a little dismayed. He didn’t answer.

“What are you going to tell them? You’re the guest speaker, you have to say something.”

He shrugged. I guess I’ll tell them I know what’s best.” We both laughed.

“But they don’t know you. Why should they believe you have their best interests at heart?” He shrugged again, looking worried.

What if you told them a story?” He groaned. “Not just any story, but the story of why you want to build the bridge where you do. What if you asked them to tell you their versions, their stories of where they think the bridge ought to be built and why they think as they do?” He sighed.

“Those aren’t stories,” he said scornfully.

“What are they then?” He shrugged.

I looked him in the eye. “A story doesn’t have to be a fairy tale or something someone wrote. It can be about what happened to you yesterday or how you’re feeling today. If those townspeople talk about how your plan would ruin their farm or disrupt their way of living, they are telling you their stories. And, if you want to reach them, you have to tell them a story that helps to makes the project make sense to them. You have to make a story about the materials you’re using, how much it will cost, why it will benefit them, why you can be trusted to make good decisions…”

“I have to be a storyteller too?” He stared at me. He seemed to be contemplating more ideas than he could process at one time. “You mean, if I told those people the story about how the bridge would make their lives better they would listen?” I nodded.

“Huh,” he said. “Who would have thought stories could be so important.”

At the Author's Celebration, he moved from telling his mother he would not read a story when storypartners shared one of their stories, to reading two of the stories he had written. He was the only child wanting to share more than one. As he left, he looked at me and winked.

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Updated May 2017.
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