Recently, Dave Eggers joined four local panelists (Lindsey Badger, Michelle Brekke, Max Smith, and me) to discuss writing and incarceration, especially the role of storytelling as a force for social justice.
When I discuss poetry with people in jail, we often get sidetracked into conversations about outer space, pharmacology, neuroscience … as it happens, the latter is particularly relevant to any discussion of storytelling. Because your consciousness has evolved to create stories.
When you choose to do something, like picking up a pen, the first thing that happens is that, unconsciously, your brain will send signals toward your muscles. You will begin to act. Then, once you are already in motion, your consciousness will be informed of your decision. Thats when your brain generates a story to explain why you chose to pick up the pen.
A human consciousness will typically create a story explaining why we chose to do something even if it wasn’t really our choice. If a researcher sways someone’s action through the use of transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation, most people will still offer up a coherent explanation explaining why they chose to act that way.
Personally, I think this sort of research into free will and mind control is fascinating. I could continue rattling off more facts. By reading this essay, you might learn something. But it probably wouldn’t change how you act. Knowledge doesn’t spur behavior, emotions do.
In Mama’s Last Hug, Frans de Waal writes that:
The Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reported on a patient, Elliot, with ventromedial frontal lobe damage. While Elliott was articulate and intellectually sound, witty even, he had become emotionally flat, showing no hint of affect in many hours of conversation.
Elliott was never sad, impatient, angry, or frustrated. This lack of emotion seemed to paralyze his decision making. It might take him all afternoon to make up his mind about where and what to eat, or half an hour to decide on an appointment or the color of his pen.
Damasio and his team tested Elliott in all sorts of ways. Even though his reasoning capacities seemed perfectly fine, he had trouble sticking with a task and especially reaching a conclusion. As Damasio summarized: “The defect appeared to set in at the late stages of reasoning, close to or at the point at which choice making or response selection must occur.”
Elliott himself, after a session in which he had carefully reviewed all options, said “And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”
After all, there is no way to prove, mathematically, how to be good. Your intellect will invariably fall short. Only by trusting your emotions can you decide that one course of action is better than another.
And that is the value of stories.
Eggers, who devotes much of his time to teaching young people, says that you could provide them with huge quantities of information – about mass incarceration in the U.S., or how we mistreat undocumented workers, or Muslim Americans after 9 / 11 – and it wouldn’t change anything. “But,” Eggers said, “if you give them even a 15-page first-person narrative, they become activists.”
By way of example, my co-panelists discussed several local stories that could be presented in a variety of ways. For instance, the kid who recently died in our local jail because the jailors stopped providing his medication after his eighteenth birthday. I’ve written about his ordeal previously; Max Smith had become close friends with him while they were confined in a small cell together; Lindsey Badger met with his mother after he died to preserve stories about his life that depict him more accurately than the terse denunciation he received from our local newspaper.
Michelle Brekke added that, although she hadn’t read the article about this young man, she knows that when she was sentenced, “If you were to look me up online, on a database or whatever, you would see that I’m a drug addict, you would see that I’m an intravenous drug user, you would see that I’m a drug dealer, but today, and even then, that’s not who I am. I’m actually a very kind, loving, caring person, who has had a really crappy way of life shoved onto me, so that’s the way of life I chose to take. I’m an overcomer, and I’ve been able to overcome that.”
“Luckily I was on the inside when I got arrested because I’m sure that the things that were said on social media, there couldn’t have been anything good.”
During her time in prison, Brekke began to write, which allowed her to tell the whole truth. She refused to let other people dictate the narrative of her life. “To be able to tell your story, or to hear somebody else’s story, you get the beginning, the middle, and the now.”
The last prompt from the audience was, “I’m curious about each of the panelists’ perspectives on how writers can hurt readers in a way that’s inspiring for people to act.”
Smith and Brekke answered for the panel (perhaps you could argue that Eggers has already provided an answer in his books – by intermixing levity with pain you can create stories that are sufficiently fun that they’ll reach an audience, but still convey a spark of indignation that compels people to work to change the world. After two hundred pages of comic antics in The Parade, Eggers concludes with an incandescent flash of horror).
Smith said, “Unfortunately for many of the people who are incarcerated, just being true to their experience hurts readers. It’s a horrible, horrible experience that is hard to imagine if you haven’t been exposed to it.”
And Brekke added, “I would want a reader to feel my own hurt, through the writing. To not feel sorry for me, but to be able to feel the truth and the pain that I once felt.”
The written word does not accomplish much if a tale is too unpalatable to reach its audience, but when the sorrows come from a place a deep integrity, or when the hurt is leavened with a touch of humor, readers might trust an author enough to continue.
And I am grateful that so many deeply committed people are willing to share hard stories in a way we can appreciate. Because we’ll need the emotional wallop of powerful stories to compel us to change the world.
Featured image: Max ribbing me. From a recording of the panel created by Jeremy Hogan.