Tag Archives: truth

“That’s the story we’re going to tell”

3 Jul

In the season six finale of Mad Men, Don Draper is making a pitch to Hershey executives that the chocolate bar is synonymous with affection. He threads a familiar yarn about his middle class father who rewarded his yard-mowing with a Hershey bar.

“That’s the story we’re going to tell,” he tells the executives with authority.

Don Draper is always in control of the story. He’s spent his whole life creating that narrative. His career in advertising was built on telling the story people want to hear.

Only it’s not real. It’s a fabrication that tastes like the rush of sugar candy. After the initial buzz, all you can taste are the artificial flavors. After too many Pixy Stix, you feel sick and full of regret.

Draper didn’t have the stomach to control the campaign anymore. He interrupts the satisfied executives with the truth that he was an orphan raised in a whorehouse. He ends his anecdote explaining that the Hershey bar was “the only sweet thing in my life.”

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Today the art of professional branding has crossed over into our personal lives thanks to social media. We think we’re in control of the narrative because we craft it so carefully, but is what we’re saying true?

After spending two weeks with journalism advisers as an Association of News Editors (ASNE) fellow in Austin, Texas, I was reminded how much of journalism is listening. The talking heads and hyper-posters seem to miss this. The older I get, and the more experience I have, the less I feel I should talk. This works against my extroverted talky-talky nature. I had to work at this. What is natural for me is listening to people’s stories. But the writer in me needs to write it down.

[The] facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like.

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That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story.

Maya Angelou

In April, I started interviewing people for a personal project on community. I’ve been transcribing these interviews into my Moleskin and trying to decipher them for patterns. This project is a long-game. I don’t know what will come of it, but it’s fascinating to hear people’s tales; I’ve learned more than can be articulated clearly yet. The most important thing this project has done so far is invigorate my love for interviewing and storytelling in general. I am interviewing to understand.

People are relieved to tell their story if they think you want to hear it. I find most people don’t think their story is important or that it’s relevant. Others worry that the truth sounds bad. They’re afraid to say it.

Don Draper’s confession comes at the crux of his own alcoholic breakdown. It took him completely losing control of his own contrived identity to create an honest moment. It was as hard for him to tell as it was for his audience to hear. But never has an audience felt more about a Hershey bar than in that moment. The story told itself precisely because Draper let go of the reigns.

The question then becomes how do you let go? From a journalistic perspective, you can’t have an agenda. You have to listen. If you think you know the story before the interview, you’ll miss the best stuff. My favorite interviews have been with people I didn’t know well, or in some cases had just met. This means the comfort level isn’t there to facilitate free conversation. It forced me to listen deeper. What are they not saying? What do they want to say but are afraid to? What do they need permission to say?

My personal interviews are purely for research and I won’t be citing people specifically in whatever I write in the future. Even in that anonymous context, people still hesitate. Sometimes they feel like they have to make excuses for how they feel. The hardest thing for a person to do is just speak the truth. That’s why stand-up comedians are so important to our culture. The good ones stand up in front of large crowds and say it straight. That’s their selling point. We laugh because we can’t do that. When they hit that nerve we’re relieved.

“She said it so I don’t have to.”

I’m a fairly open person now, but I grew up an incredibly private one. Most of my real thoughts were never spoken aloud. I imagine that’s true of many of the young people I teach. What is not said keeps me up at night.

This is why I’m excited to advise my school’s newspaper next year. I want my staff to tell the real stories of our school. Not the sanitized versions, not the two-minute interview snapshots. The stories that first make people uncomfortable, but eventually help them understand.

One of the first things one of my colleagues said on the first day of the ASNE institute in Austin was “Students aren’t looking for more information. They’re looking for more ways to connect.”

In that moment I knew I didn’t have to change into some kind of Twitter-happy news hound to advise the newspaper. I could be myself and help the kids tell honest stories. As a young yearbook adviser, I didn’t have the perspective I do now. I was more concerned with not offending people, and pleasing everyone in the school. I’m sure I missed many chances to connect because I saw the book as a publicity tool instead of communication tool.

Stunned by Draper’s childhood admission, one of the Hershey executives asks, “Do you want to advertise that?”

Draper responds, “If I had my way, you would never advertise. You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is. He already knows.”

We all know. We just need to see it in print.

 

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What it means to be silent

18 Dec

When I was a senior in college, I traveled to the Bronx, NY, to interview for a job as a community organizer. During the interview process (which lasted all weekend), one of the organizers spoke to us about why she left her career as a stage manager to become an organizer. She said something that made such a huge impression on me that I re-evaluated everything I knew to be true.

“Art doesn’t bring social justice.”

This put two of my most cherished ideals in conflict. I was the English major who’d devoted time each summer since the age of 13 to ending hunger and homelessness. I read poetry and I gleaned corn. I studied Shakespeare and the reasons for domestic and global hunger.  I became a vegetarian. I recycled. I volunteered at the local homeless shelter when I could.

I also auditioned (unsuccessfully) for plays, read my poems at open mic nights, and took in all the live music I could get my ears on.  I decided to major in English while loving every last word of a mythology poem. If I could savor each word so specifically, what was I doing majoring in psychology or sociology? Even after I declared, I had no real plan. Someone just said, “major in the thing you love the most.” When you make it that simple, it becomes an easy choice. I finally decided to be a teacher while reading a book. Every decision I’ve made that seems to fit me has come from following my heart.

Being a community organizer was something I felt like I should try. It seemed like a tough but important opportunity. So when that woman said art didn’t change anything, I took it personally. Not  because I owned art or even considered myself a part of art, but I definitely believed art changed people because it changed me.

But I was 21 years old, optimistic and impressionable, and I thought this meant that I couldn’t have it both ways: I couldn’t pursue feats of imagination when people lacked food and shelter. If I was serious about wanting to “change the world,” I had to choose.

Dear 21-year-old me: That woman lied!

The only thing that changes complicated political/cultural/social barriers is Art.

Art and service to each other.

It’s not partisan activist groups.

It’s not unions.

It’s not xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, or tribalism.

It’s not gun control Facebook fights.

It’s not passive aggressive gratitude posts.

It’s not gloating after your side wins an election.

It’s not a lot of things that pretend to change the world.

The world is changed one person at a time, over long periods of time.

Back in May of 2011, comedian Marc Maron interviewed Garry Shandling on his podcast and the two were discussing solutions to political and spiritual dilemmas. Maron, who once worked for the now-defunct Air America talk radio, speaks about turning away from politics because he came to believe people’s real problems were more existential than political. I take that to mean that we need to grapple with our own decision-making (free will) versus picking a side or a team.

Garry Shandling said maybe the only thing that could transcend those differences is art.

Marc Maron said maybe the only thing that could change things is heart.

“I think it’s heart,” Maron repeated softly, with a vulnerability that makes you listen closer.

Others might say faith.

I was taken right back to that moment of truth from my youth when I thought I had to pick a side.

It’s a false choice.

I didn’t end up getting that job as an organizer. Thank goodness. I would have spent that entire year trying to be someone I am not. Someone too cynical about “reality” to honor the power creativity has in lifting the most burdened body or soul.

“We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.”

–Ray Bradbury

If ever a person was in love with the world, it was our recently departed Bradbury. He put a microscope on the truth, then he moved forward in pursuit of joy.

The fire was gone, then back again, like a winking eye. He stopped, afraid he might blow the fire out with a single breath. But the fire was there and he approached warily, from a long way off. It took the better part of fifteen minutes before he drew very close indeed to it, and then he stood looking at it from cover. That small motion, the white and red color, a strange fire because it meant a different thing to him. 

It was not burning. It was warming.

He saw many hands held to its warmth, hands without arms, hidden in darkness. Above the hands, motionless faces that were only moved and tossed and flickered with firelight. He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take.

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There was a silence gathered all about that fire and the silence was in the men’s faces, and time was there, time enough to sit by this rusting track under the trees and look at the world and turn it over with the eyes, as if it were held to the center of the bonfire, a piece of steel these men were all shaping. It was not only the fire that was different. It was the silence.

  –Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

There is too much talking right now and not enough silence. In honor of those 20 children in Connecticut, and the adults who tried desperately to save them, I choose to listen before I speak. I choose to celebrate service before I give an audience to hatred. Those teachers, among whom could have been my own sister and one of my dearest friends, did what teachers do every day. They protect their students, they expose them to art, history, science, math, literature: they give them a glance into something bigger than themselves.

When I was in second grade, my teacher said to me: “You like writing, don’t you?”

Yes, yes I do.