There is a popular phrase, (and in some cases a game) called Six Degrees of Separation. It suggests that each person on the planet is only separated from every other person by no more than six other people. Example: I can say that I am separated by only four people from Mohandas K. Gandhi. My father (1) tells the story of his grandfather (2) disagreeing at Friends General Conference with his distant cousin U.S. President Herbert Hoover (3) who was defeated for re-election by Franklin D. Roosevelt (4) who corresponded with Gandhi in 1942. Gandhi died before I was born and clearly I have no real relationship with him. This game of name-dropping is most often played to try and connect "ordinary" folks to celebrities. It was made popular by a Broadway play and film based on the true story of a con man who tries to insinuate himself into the lives of some self involved wealthy social climbers. The theme of the story and the game is that we all are alike under the skin whether we enjoy a life of privilege or struggle in poverty. Our lives are only different because of a relatively few circumstances.
in any storytelling, it could be said that there are but six
degrees of perspective between each person. If you physically
move just six degrees at any event you will experience that
event slightly differently. Multiply the number of people and
you can multiply the number of points of view. Six different
people who witness the same things will have six different degrees
of perspective about what happened. The first person and the
sixth person are likely to have radically different interpretations.
They are different because of only very minor circumstances.
by the grace of God,
I am what I am."
1 Corinthians 15:10
Whenever anyone tells a story the best they can do is offer their own point of view. Journalists are supposed to show a balanced representation of all sides in an issue. Reporters with personal or political agendas often do not, regardless of their apparent efforts to do so. Fiction writers do not have that restraint placed on them. However in order to tell a story effectively, multiple perspectives have to be represented. Characters react to situations differently. That is where the drama and action often takes place.
Recently during the terrible sniper shootings in the Washington D.C. area, there were many witnesses and many different accounts of what happened at each crime. The police struggled to come up with descriptions to give the public. Eventually they came up with the most commonly observed vehicles: white delivery trucks and vans - probably the most common utility transportation used by area businesses. They had arrived at the most common truth but not the greatest truth, which in this case - in reality - was a dark blue sedan.
There are some lessons here for storytellers - regardless of whether your intention is to portray facts, truths or to just tell a good yarn. First, reporters and news managers need to show restraint in covering a fast breaking story. This has been unheeded advice since the news industry began. We continue to be reminded of this, especially now that a rumor can be broadcast as fact around the world on television and the Internet almost instantly. The usual conventions of fact checking and avoiding speculation should apply even more stringently in a case like the one above where there was real danger resulting in great public fear and anxiety. There is a chicken and the egg corollary here. Does the news media behave this way to get more viewers or do they get more viewers because they behave this way? Is it right to encourage speculation when there is no new information to give the public?
A convincing speaker, like the many experts consulted in the media, may say they are only guessing, but in a tense situation if there is any logic to their words, the idea can take on a life of it's own. In this case, people began looking for the wrong truck and ignored the real culprit. This cost authorities precious time in catching the shooters, which in turn cost lives. Sharing these descriptions was done jointly by the press and the police. A lot of people made the same bad decisions. It looks like this is something people working in mass media will have to continue to work on.
It could be said that there are a number of different "truths" to seek when developing a story.
person - from their own perspective, will witness facts and
from a joint perspective, will agree on facts and logical assumptions.
based on interpretations and assumptions, will be accepted by
many as the truth.
through a sense of thoughtfulness, openness and compassion will
observe more than just the facts. They will witness a more complete
picture of the truth and its implications.
For most journalists the goal is to represent a story fairly by including a balanced number of points of view, and relay logical conclusions based on facts: common truth. To weave both individual and common truths into something greater is the stuff of poetry and great literary works. It is a skill that does not just present it self to everyone. There are people who have a dedicated personal agenda and will use common truths to support their individual truth. They will call it the Truth and tell everyone to follow it. Often this is merely "conventional" truth or wisdom. It is difficult for a storyteller to honestly assess their own personal bias. They may sincerely want to believe they are on a mission to inform the public. Or, they are on a quest of discovery for the enlightenment of themselves and their audience. Others may honestly recognize their agenda but have no qualms about manipulating the delivery of their information in a way that supports their ideas. Are they lying? Some are some are not. Do any ethics inform their decisions? Only they can tell.
A good storyteller is not necessarily an honest storyteller. Tim Obrien a novelist ("In The Lake Of The Woods" and "The Things That They Carried" ) who has written a number of compelling books about the experience of American soldiers in Vietnam is a good example. A common theme in his work is the attempt to understand the difference between reality and personal memories and fantasies. He deftly plays a game with the reader, getting them to question: Is this what really happened or an illusion or even a delusion? Friends I know who have heard him speak say that even in personal appearances Obrien plays this game. He tells fictional tales from his books as if he really experienced them and then reveals he made them up. We have no trouble with this in fictional literature because there is a presumption of untruth. Though - people love to play at asking: Was this a thinly disguised version of what really happened?
In the process of telling a lie Obrien reveals to us our own capacity to edit our own history to make it more acceptable though perhaps less truthful. It is an unfortunate paradox of human beings - the idea that the way to overcome evil is often through evil. Stop a violent mad man by killing him. Trick the deceitful by lying to them. Human stories have been full of this dilemma since the beginning of history. You might think that that is what makes a story dramatic. But there are alternatives in fiction as well as in journalism. If in our work as storytellers we are sincerely searching for truth, we will find those alternatives.
Storytelling is a rich part of the traditions of the Religious Society of Friends. Unprogrammed worship used to be referred to as "primitive Quakerism" because it's modern practice was most like that of early Friends. In deed it is a throw back to the meetings of early Christians left with out a leader and waiting on instruction from God following the death of Jesus. But you could even take this a step further back in human history. You could compare unprogrammed worship to the earliest community gatherings to share stories around a watering hole or campfire. Today, a lot of Quaker ministry continues to come to Friends in the form of the stories of our experience.
is that near you which will guide you. O wait for it and be sure
to keep to it.
a professional storyteller or communicator, meeting for worship
can inspire us in a unique way. It is important to test our
leading to speak in worship. This is a reverent desire to share
something that will unite us with that of God in those present,
to humbly communicate experiences and ideas that are helpful.
A prayerful process of discernment helps to truly inspire us
with God's love and truth. This process can also serve us when
we want to be in touch with an audience. The most important
difference between news media and other documentary or fictional
forms is the element of time. The former must make decisions
quickly. There might not be time to stop and pray. Spiritual
discipline would have to happen during worship, or before one
leaves for work in the morning to prepare the mind to be open
to ethical leadings at little notice. Those of us who have the
luxury of time to make sacred our approach to work, should not
take it for granted.
Integrity in communication is difficult to achieve with out some serious and intentional consideration. Personal biases can be obstacles to finding and communicating the truth. Even when we honestly and humbly share the nature of our own perspective, it becomes part of the story. Testing when this is appropriate with colleagues and others close to us is important and helpful. I have found comfort in the collaborative nature of unprogrammed worship. I have also found that is why I feel drawn to media work. Working in concert with other people, connecting with that of God in them; is worshipful to me. Being humble and yet brave enough to get another opinion relies on trust and fellowship. That is a gift in any occupation.
How do you deliberately seek truth when you cover a story or create
a work of fiction? Do you take time to really think about the
effects of your story before you tell it? How do you "lay aside"
your own preconceived notions and biases? When and how can it be
helpful to share your point of view? Are you able to ask for and
learn from others' opinions of your work?
Do you have a spiritual discipline in relation to creative work? Do you
take time for prayer, worship and meditation that can help keep
you centered in an ethical and open frame of mind? Do you look for
opportunities to worship with people whose work and goals relate
Dana Kester-McCabe is a freelance graphic artist, writer and designer from Bishopville, Maryland.
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