2017 Conference Highlight: But What is Storytelling?
Keynote Address by Greg Schwipps, DePauw University
Summary Notes by Heidi Ferguson, Georgia DNR
Mention “storytelling” and my ears perk up. Add “narrative” and now we’re on my home turf. Which is why I was eager to sign up to write an article on the ACI 2017 keynote address, “But What Is Storytelling? Understanding Narrative and Learning How to Use It.”
Scholarship recipients like me sign up to write articles on one or more conference presentations. As soon as the signup sheet moved on to the next person, I started to question my decision. With a major in English and a personal obsession with the written word (little did the kids in the schoolyard know, “You read the dictionary or something?” wasn’t so much an insult as an objective fact), I started to picture a 10,000-foot-view summary of rising and falling action, an obligatory – and vague – mention of conflict, a side order of “Your character has to want something,” and maybe even some Hero’s Journey if there was room. (Our intrepid Hunter answers the Call to Adventure under the mentorship of a grizzled, telepathic brown trout, a spunky Labradoodle huntin’ dawg by his side).
When Greg Schwipps, an English professor at DePauw University, took the podium, he started with why he was qualified to explain story to a room full of conservationists. The keynote address hinged on the power of the personal narrative essay, starting with the big fish tale that led to him co-authoring Fishing for Dummies, Second Edition. Next, he read “Shark Fishing with My Uncle” (which has nothing and yet everything to do with sharks, fishing and uncles) and concluded with the story of a student looking for a publisher for their personal essay on mountain biking.
Along the way, Greg outlined 14 “Points of Light,” including why narrative should have an immediate, short-term goal. How you should have a vision, but be open to what you discover along the way. The importance of finding the few people who can model your short-term goal, and if you can’t find an existing model, how to teach someone and create one. And how to tell the story of an individual or small group to appeal to the masses.
What he really did was lead by example.
“Shark Fishing with My Uncle” is a difficult story to describe. The uncle of the story is “Uncle Renee,” who is not Greg’s uncle, but a good friend with a peculiar nickname. The story is held together by a series of texts planning a shark fishing trip, but those texts mostly serve to tie together the events of Greg’s and Uncle Renee’s lives. Humor, anger and joy all have their place in the story as we discover how Uncle Renee got his nickname; watch Uncle Renee respond to a domestic violence call we wish he could do more about; and see Greg struggle with work, family and solo shark fishing.
Late in the story, we find out the differences between Greg and Uncle Renee. Greg has sons. Uncle Renee has daughters. Greg is a professor. Uncle Renee is a police officer. Uncle Renee knows how to catch the big sharks. Greg is the one who has to go out into the ocean in a kayak to place the bait. Greg is white. Uncle Renee is black.
The story originated when Greg struggled to craft a response to recent events. Racial unrest and police brutality preoccupied the nation and the students at DePauw University. He wondered what he could say to his students to ease tensions, and then he realized he had been receiving countless texts from a working cop, who happened to be black, planning their trip to go shark fishing. He decided to make art out of life.
“For a story, any story, to matter, it has to mean something. That meaning isn’t necessarily profound, but you have to convince the reader or viewer that it is important.” He shifted from the profound meanings of “Shark Fishing with My Uncle” to the straightforward, conservation information-ready experience of one of his students. In the early 2000s, as an assignment to write and shop around an article, one of his students wrote about mountain biking. When he sent the article to Outdoor Indiana, he was told they couldn’t publish it because Indiana had no public bike trails. Years later, after the creation of miles of public trails, that student was invited to try them out. They photographed him, and he wrote the article. He was “the ringer” for what Outdoor Indiana wanted – people using the bike trails. All you have to do is show one interesting person taking action. You have to convince them the action, in that time, at that place, is important. And not through facts and figures. (98 percent of people are convinced by statistics, which is somewhat convincing until you find out the speaker made that number up.) People and stories are convincing.
I found the keynote address to be one of the most outstanding and original pieces of story advice I’ve come across. When it came time to write the article, the way forward was clear: The keynote was inextricable from story.