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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

The Magic of Storytelling: Real and Fictional

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

I recently listened to the podcast “The Story of Your Life” on Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam. I felt like I was listening to a really good version of the conversations I have with my students at the beginning of the year about the power and value of storytelling.

So much of what we talk about has to do with how literature can transform the world in a social and political way. How it challenges norms and how it inspires us to demand more. Irony, for instance, flips the world we know upside down. Satire makes us laugh, but then it makes us think.

But this episode focused on catharsis, the idea that we can make sense of our experiences and transform them into stories that give us peace of mind. Stories that help other people develop the mental skills necessary to think logically and make wise choices despite the pressure to do otherwise.

Why would we fictionalize, or change what happened to us? When we create fiction, we imagine the thoughts of the people around us and do our best to imagine exactly what they were thinking when they say, tell us that they love us, punch us in the face, or smile at an unexpected moment. We never really know what the people around us are thinking, but a third person narrator does just that. An omniscient narrator knows the exact thoughts of everyone in the room, a beautiful impossibility.

Before my students write a personal narrative for their college application essay, I have them sit in groups and tell stories about random topics I write on an index card like “dinner”, “rain”, “car ride”, “birthday party”, or “ice cream”. I tell them to flip the card, look at the topic, and then tell the first story that comes to mind. The class fills with laughter and I can tell that they’re really listening to each other and … getting to know each other.

It’s so important to interpret great literature, but it’s also important that we allow students to tell real stories about their lives and explore philosophical ideas about identity, time, meaning, and being. Once they revisit their experiences, they can then take those memories and playfully craft them into fictional stories that reveal their newfound understanding of the people and places they encounter. They can immerse themselves in a moment and like a piñata, beat it with a stick until candy comes out.

Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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