Outside the Box

In the last week or so, I’ve been playing TED talks in the background while I work. They’re amazing. For serious though. These speakers, some of the top in their respective fields, from movie screenwriters to photojournalists, novelists to spoken word poets, have thought hard and articulated well the backbone of What Makes a Good Story and the Importance of Stories. Plus, I’ve had a number of great coffee shop conversations about writing and experimenting with mixed media for a more meaningful, interactive experience with the reader. The result? I’m really excited about creative and meaningful storytelling.

For example, there’s the hard-hitting war journalism of Janine di Giovanni, and the justice-driven photography of global slavery by Lisa Kristine, bearing witness to modern slavery worldwide. These courageous journalists travel to some of the diciest and dustiest places on the globe to tell the stories that all too often forgotten.

In her 2012 TED Talk, “What I Saw in the War,” Giovanni says:

“All I am is a witness. My role is to bring a voice to people who are voiceless [and] to shine a light in the darkest corners of the world.”

Then there’s Andrew Stanton, creator of Toy Story, WALL-E, and perhaps my favorite TED Talk to date. At one point, Stanton says:

“That’s what I think the magic ingredient is, the secret sauce. It’s: “Can you invoke wonder?”… For me there’s no greater gift than the ability of another human being to give you that feeling. To hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and surrender to wonder. When it’s tapped the affirmation of being alive reaches you almost at a cellular level. And when an artist does that to another artist, it’s like you’re compelled to pass it on. It’s like a dormant command that’s suddenly activated in you, like a call to devil’s tower: “Do unto others what’s been done to you.” The best stories infuse wonder.”

I’ll sometimes find myself lapsing into soulless, newswriter prose – devoid of adjectives or structure or rhythm, the feeling of being there and seeing it noticeably absent. Just declarative sentences. Just the facts ma’am.

Then I’ll go see a movie where I sit in shocked silence as the credits roll, do a double take at a photograph, read a novel or a poem that just sticks, the kind where not just the content, but the architecture and arrangement of the words on the page just won’t leave until I’ve gone and created something of my own.

Or when people give a glimpse behind the curtain, like in these TED Talks. They get my mind whirring at high speed and moving 18 directions at once. They remind me that stories demand to be told and heard and read and experienced in different ways – and that reminds me that I get to be creative, to experiment, to try things and watch what crashes and burns and what people connect with. I get to try and capture the world, show people what’s here and what could be here and why they should care. And that’s something else. That’s where the fun of it collides with purpose.

If life, even a life far different from one’s own, can be captured in a way that makes the audience pause for a moment rather than just dismiss the subject as one more in the unending barrage of daily media. If the audience can, just for a moment, swim with the author through the swelteringly humid air and smog of Kalighat, taste the spice of the curry, hear the roar of the subway and the cacophony of languages, then that world becomes a part of their own experience. If, just for a moment, the audience can understand the tears, the fatalistic desolation, of a Bengali woman who has been trapped in forced prostitution since she was 11 years old; if they can look and see the foggy brown of her eyes, feel the rough edges of the cement walls of the tiny room she calls home, peer under the bed where her tiny daughter hides when her mother sees clients on a creaking mattress inches above her, then that story becomes part of their story.

I don’t entirely know what this all looks like yet – but the gears in my mind are turning. Here’s to thinking outside the box.

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