A Time for Storytellers: How to Make the Most of Your Superpower

This is a time for storytellers.

 

I don’t mean only in the dystopian sense, although that may be the first type of story that comes to mind these days. I mean in a broader sense, an empathetic sense, a “policies and lawmakers must be brought down—or up—to earth and escorted into real lives” sense. In the what, where, when, of public life, storytellers are the ones who show how and why policymakers’ actions matter.

 

Have you read legislation? To say that it’s generally dry reading is like saying writers generally experience self-doubt. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but by the time you find one, you can’t help wondering what it’s hiding. So though it’s necessary to explain the facts of legislative proposals to a distrustful, often misled public, it’s also difficult. Bills like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act are long, complex, and numerous, and after listening to one provision after another after another described on TV and online, many people will just turn off the noise. How do you get people to pay attention?

 

Enter the storyteller.

 

From the earliest days of language, people told stories. They did this to entertain and to be social. But they also told tales to communicate knowledge. As I write this, a comedian just successfully led the opposition to the latest attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Why? Because he used his platform to tell a poignant story of his infant son’s heart surgery and his subsequent realization that other parents without his resources might not be able to afford to save their own babies’ lives.

 

We may not all have access to Jimmy Kimmel’s platform. But as writers, we can tell a story. If we are good writers, we can examine our world and find within and around us stories that exemplify the core of an issue, an event, or a life. We can write those stories in a way that will permit light to shine in places others might prefer to remain in darkness. We can interview individuals to illuminate human consequences of otherwise faceless actions. We can extrapolate from real actions in the present and create tales showing possible ramifications in the future. We can, in both nonfiction and fiction, translate the dry words of governance into the tangible reality of human life.

 

Is there an injustice you want to highlight, a proposal you want to advance or fight, a dark corner of the world you want to expose to the light? Learn something about the issue, yes. But you can do better than that.

 

This is a time for storytellers. If you’re a writer, you’re already equipped with a key tool to be an advocate. Storytelling is your superpower, so go find something in the world that moves you. Write a story. Be a superhero. Do good.

About the Author

Tracy Hahn-Burkett is a writer and former public policy advocate. She founded the adoption and parenting blog, Uncharted Parent, contributes to the fiction-writing blog, Writer Unboxed, and has published dozens of essays, stories, articles, and reviews in places like The Drum, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, The Washington Post’s On Parenting, and Adoptive Families magazine. A recipient of a grant from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, she is currently working on her first novel. Before turning to creative writing, Tracy served as a member of U.S. Senator Herb Kohl’s Judiciary Committee staff, clerked in the U.S. Department of Justice under the U.S. Attorney General’s Honors Program, and was Deputy and Acting Director of Public Policy for the civil rights and civil liberties nonprofit, People For the American Way. She also worked in post-Communist Czechoslovakia, teaching English and coordinating Western assistance programs for the Federal Assembly and the Czech National Council.

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