October 22, 2012

Of Myths and Mixed Signals: Getting the Story Right


President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama talk to "CBS This Morning" host Charlie Rose.
Source: CBS News

During a White House interview this past July, President Obama told Charlie Rose that he felt that the mistake of his first term was his failure to "tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times."

Ignoring whatever truths or untruths such an admittance ultimately belies, it's that brief utterance—almost innocent in its own subtlety—that stands out so oddly and profoundly in my opinion.

To tell a story.

He could have gone with any variety of phrases; used words like communicate or explain to get his point across. But to tell a story? I'd never quite heard the role of the president described in such a way.

Whatever his intentions, I believe the President touched upon a certain truth with that statement, a truth far beyond political infrastructure or plutocratical positioning.

The truth being: the onus is on us.

You don't have to look all the way back to the Old Testament or Homer or the caveman paintings to understand the fundamental role of story in society. One can't so much as check his email or walk to the grocery store without feeling awash with tales and fables, allegories and anecdotes; information and misinformation all equally combined into one ocular field of view.

The literary realm is no separate entity of civilization. The same rules of the universe still apply here just as much as they do everywhere else. To implement a sense of "unity and purpose and optimism" upon the public goes far beyond the responsibilities of the presidency. It's inherent in nearly everything we do. Short of those three things, what else is there, really? What other rationale have we left for why we write—why we go on living?

As nonfiction writers, I think the critical lens needs to be positioned in both directions. Just as we look out on the world, we must be cognizant of the world that's staring right back at us, and always we must continue to ask ourselves: what particular loss am I imparting to society in my failure to tell my story?

-mark mondalek

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