I was warned. Be crystal clear on your audience. I was absolutely, duly warned. In fact, I even warned myself. Show, don’t tell. Human hearts and minds are convinced by story, not heavy rational arguments laced with statistics, facts, and figures. Those things are important for policy design, but what makes individuals act is a compelling story.
Last month I had a pivotal conversation with a couple of people who I had engaged with to help me with getting my upcoming book out there. It was one of those conversations which goes totally completely in a different direction than you thought it would, and then two hours later, you wander dazed out of a cafe in Aro Valley, and everything has been turned upside down and you cannot unsee.
I had been on track to self-publish my first book on storytelling and narrative to support systems change in April this year, but that old 11th hour spanner in the works has now lodged itself firmly and I am back into editing mode. Let me explain.
What the wonderful, caring people I sat down with that fateful morning had to say hit at the core of a gut feeling that I’d had about the book for some time, that I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on. A feeling that in places that I got a bit too heady, too academic. The cognitive psychology of storytelling and behaviour change is fascinating stuff. So is the political theory and progressive campaigning tools of folks like George Lakoff and the good people at Common Cause Foundation. But what I gleaned out of the conversation, was that my current draft manuscript features a few instances where I have gone a little too deep, quite probably at the risk of losing people along the way. This would be totally appropriate if I was publishing a text book or a strict how-to manual on storytelling for change.
But since the beginning I have wanted this book to be an engaging story in its own right. To show, not to tell.
In many ways, it’s my story. It’s everything I’ve learned — both the easy way and the hard way — over the past 10 years or so in a career spanning non-profit environmental advocacy, political messaging, crowdfunding, software development, spoken word poetry, human-centric storytelling, and community building in networks dedicated to systemic change. The book is a work of creative non-fiction, full of anecdotes and reflections through which I aim to be authentic and inspire. The sections are broken up with a handful of my spoken word pieces. These parts are at odds with the more dry, academic material (can’t unsee!), so where I’ve landed is to re-edit and homogenise the tone a bit more throughout.
It’s a hard lesson that requires me to take my own medicine — to draw people into a story, rather than rationalise with them about why they should tell a good story.
For systems to truly change and humanity to have a fighting chance of addressing big hairy problems like climate change, hunger, disease, inequality, systemic racism, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and a widespread mental health crisis, we need people working together on big, hairy problems who come from many different perspectives. Everyone is required. We need to attract strange bedfellows that bring different points of view, and resist the urge to stay within our shiny, comfortable bubbles of like-minded humans. The political polarisation dividing the US, the UK with Brexit, and even here in New Zealand is a self-perpetuating cycle, the breaking of which rests on how much we are willing to tell our authentic stories and to take the time to truly listen to those of others.
Complex, systemic problems haven’t arisen out of a vacuum; they have arisen out of many years, decades, and in some cases centuries of predominant, harmful and divisive narratives about social order, race, money, business, and our relationship to the natural gifts of the planet we live on. It is these dominant narratives that I’m looking to help people to disrupt, reorient, and rewrite. For that to happen, I need this book to speak to people from many different walks of life, and surprise surprise, all the tools of authentic storytelling need to be leveraged for that to happen!
Story is what bridges the chasm created by identity politics, harmful rhetoric, and vastly different life experiences.
So. I’m back in editing mode to make my book a more accessible story throughout. I’m not going to lie, it’s been a tough lesson to learn and yes, I was warned — to be ridiculously specific on who your audience is and what motivates them, to know before writing exactly what you want your book to achieve, and to constantly check yourself. If you ever find yourself sitting down to write a book, this is your warning. Then again, experience trumps advice and if you’re anything like me, no matter how many warnings you get, the going through it is really the best way to learn. Despite the setback, I am quietly hopeful that these extra few months will result in something that can be truly transformational for readers who are trying to enact social, environmental, cultural or economic change in their own way.
To those who are following my journey, thank you for your patience! I’m aiming to publish mid-2021 :)