If you could have any super power, what would you choose? Would you fly? Read minds? As a child, I would have opted for invisibility. But on inauguration day 2017 I changed my mind.
I now choose the power of story.
An hour before the presidential inauguration, I walked into a movie theater at the Sundance Film Festival. When the lights dimmed I squeezed my eyes shut and fought back tears because I knew that when the lights turned back on I would have a new president. And I was not ready.
The film was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the follow up to The Inconvenient Truth, which premiered at Sundance ten years ago. The documentary featured facts, charts, interviews, and news clips about climate science, which, if not strung together by Gore’s narration, would have driven me into the fetal position under my seat.
The ice sheets are melting; the planet is warming. It’s happening faster than we thought. But somehow, as Al Gore wove his story of woe, he infused it with hope. He found people making a difference. He filmed unlikely alliances forged between forward-thinking entrepreneurs and leaders of Third World Nations.
Something unexpected stirred in me: optimism. I felt moved to action. Stripped of the stories about the researchers in Antarctica and the stealthy, behind-the-scenes negotiations at the Paris Climate Change Conference, the data Gore presented would not have felt hopeful. It would not have moved me. It was the story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.
When lights came back on, I checked the time. Things would be different when I stepped out of the theater. But that flicker of hope persisted. It still does.
I saw several other films at Sundance and sat in on a panel about using story to incite activism. I watched a movie about a social media stalker and one about a woman who wanted to write her obituary before she died. I saw a movie about two farming families—one black, one white—in the segregated post-WWII South, and a gut-wrenching film about a man unjustly imprisoned for twenty-one years.
Some of the stories glanced off my skin. Maybe I laughed and forgot about what was going on in the world for a few minutes. Those characters won’t linger. But some of those stories now live inside me because the writers and actors dug deep into my own emotions and showed me something new. I lived experiences that were not my own. I am changed.
That is the power of story.
After the credits rolled by for An Inconvenient Sequel Al Gore stepped onto the stage to take questions. I jumped to my feet and joined the standing ovation in the robust echo chamber of like-minded people. I imagined that every person who saw that film would be moved to rise up and fight climate change. But I also realize it was a self-selective group of people who chose to buy tickets to that particular film on inauguration day.
I wish everyone would watch An Inconvenient Sequel, but I know they won’t. Most people who choose to watch that documentary probably already believe in the science of climate change. The people who refuse to watch have already dug their heels in as well.
Story can be the back door.
Fiction welcomes anyone into the tent, not just the like-minded. Instead of beginning with charts and graphs, story leads with details that tug on our hearts. It makes us care and opens our minds to people and concepts we might otherwise turn our backs on.
I can’t take people by the hand and force feed them charts about the rates of ice melt in the Arctic. I can’t make them look at footage documenting centuries of racism or the injustice of queer—, trans—, intersectional— and homophobia, religious persecution, or misogyny.
But, as a writer, I can tell a story. I can invite readers into a world they do not recognize. I can show them the view through someone else’s eyes. And, maybe, I can change someone. Fiction—in film, print, and oral storytelling—has the capacity to touch anyone. Stories about people and places we do not understand. And stories we know so well it hurts.
As a writer, I claim that power of story.
I might stumble. I might not be a graceful superhero/storyteller, and I won’t always get it right. (Picture the clumsy 80’s TV show The Greatest American Hero rather than Wonder Woman). But I have to try. And I will keep trying.
So I ask again, what super power will you choose?
Quiet citizens are emerging as great orators. Author Roxanne Gay pulled a $250,000 book deal from a publisher who gave platform to a white supremacist. Starbucks pledged to hire 10,000 refugees. Consumers are boycotting businesses that support issues (and political leaders) propagating hate. US diplomats around the globe are risking their careers to voice dissent. Armies of strangers are spontaneously amassing at airports to protect vulnerable immigrants and refugees.
We all have a role. Choose your super power.
But please, do not choose invisibility.