The Storyteller’s Promise

A Manifesto by Rebecca Solnit.

Edited (with apologies to the author) to fit the Art Of It style. Or lack there of.

Stories surround us like air.

We breathe them in.

We breathe them out.

The art of being fully conscious in life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller. And not letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.

Part of the water

Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities. Because your story becomes part of that water.

It undermines or reinforces the existing stories.

You may think that your job is to tell the story that’s on the surface. The contained story. The one that happened yesterday.

But it’s bigger than that

Your job is also to see and sometimes to break open the ambient stories. The stories that are already written.

To do your job you must understand the relationship between your story and the ones that have come before.

If you look closely, you’ll see that there are stories beneath the stories and around the stories.

Look who’s driving the culture

Your immediate story is often merely the hood ornament on a mighty social engine that is a bigger story. An expansive story that’s driving the culture.

We call those “dominant narratives.” Or “paradigms.” Or “memes.” Or “metaphors we live by.” Or “frameworks.”

However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces.

Propping up or keeping people out

Our culture reinforces these expansive stories. That’s because they are the pillars that prop it up. Yet these same stories, too often, become the bars of someone else’s cage.

They are stories that should be broken. Or that are already broken and ruined and ruinous. And way past their expiration date. Because they sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.

Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the current story. To make them visible.

The creative act of breaking

And sometimes to break us free of them. Break the story. Breaking is a creative act as much as making.

The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built,

It is to step outside. To question the framework. Or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside. All in the service of making visible what was locked out of the view.

Some of us focus on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces. And who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo.

This is why you need to know your history

You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have.

How they’re selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, and embroidering.

How they’re distributing empathy here but not there.

How they’re remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.

Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events. They’re the ugly (and sometimes beautiful) wallpaper of our everyday lives.

About Rebecca Solnit.

Writer, historian, and activist, Rebecca Solnit is the author of seventeen books. Ranging from environment, community, art, and politics, to hope and memory. Solnit is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. She writes the magazine’s “Easy Chair” essay.

She has received two NEA fellowships for Literature, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Creative Capital Award, and a Lannan literary fellowship. In 2004 she got the Wired Rave Award for writing on the effects of technology on the arts and humanities. In 2010 Utne Reader magazine named Solnit as one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World”. Her The Faraway Nearby was nominated for a National Book Award,and shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award.

A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is also columnist at Harper’s and frequent contributor to the Guardian newspaper.