History, when not a literal stack of source material (official documents, registers, receipts, census records, etc.) is a narrative produced with a specific audience in mind. The emotion of the writer has far less to do with the spin put on the facts than does the desired effect on the audience.

That narrative can spin facts is not the problem. It’s a fabulous tool that, like a spotlight, can direct attention on both well-known material and on new scenes previously overlooked. Without the power of narrative, most fact would go overlooked and dismissed from its sheer volume and variety of forms.

To use another analogy, narrative connects facts like points on a plane. If presented with the birth and death records of an individual, one can draw a highly simple narrative. Add in a government file describing a new business paying taxes in a different city from the birth and death dates, opened by the same individual, and the narrative becomes more complex. One connecting these facts may be led to say this individual was enterprising and praise them for their motivation and grit. However, if their name also surfaced in their birth city, listed as the parent to a child born less than two years before the new business filing, and they claim no dependents on that tax document, then the narrative complicates drastically. Were they the victims of a tragic loss? Or was this person fleeing family responsibility? More facts are needed to decide this narrative conclusion. It influences the way their life will be described to others.

Narrative writing requires the writer to choose which facts to include, and under what light to describe them. Unless the author of the story uses a minimal vocabulary, even the choice of verbs influence how the facts are viewed. Consider the huge difference between “run”, “fled”, “left”, etc. While this may be considered a handicap in terms of conveying pure factual history, it’s also a powerful weapon against emotional ignorance, marginalizing communities, and neglecting less popular facts which are just as true as the popular ones.

Personal History

Nonfiction narrative is a form with great variety. The most common is recording personal history in the form of journaling or keeping a diary. Psychology accepts this form of record keeping as beneficial specifically for the need to push fact through narrative. Writing personal experience has been tested and accepted to have the most health benefits when both fact and emotion are applied in the record.

Consider what happens when you tell a handful of people about the same event. Not only do you change the narrative to sound more interesting with each telling, some facts may appeal more to your best friend than would appeal to your spouse. This may not change what happened, but it would change how you told the story. This effect is intensified with the multiple perspectives necessary for writing a memoir. This type of narrative writing requires the writer to have a relationship with the facts in terms of their current knowledge, their past perspective, and the emotional message for the audience.

Collective History

History involves more than one person, more than one group, and more than a single place. Even if they’re not directly involved, most noteworthy events have far reaching influence. The same facts, when they’re accurate, have widely different meanings when told from varying perspectives. This provides a wealth of narrative opportunity and renewed interest in these facts.

Historians gain quite a bit of prestige as they work to rewrite cultural narratives with neglected facts in order to incorporate marginalized groups. The already accepted narratives are enhanced with group-specific facts/assumptions, then shared to draw members of that group behind a new historic identity. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen highlights how history, when portrayed as concrete “fact”, loses its luster and students (especially those belonging to groups marginalized in the “traditional” telling) not only lose interest but they lose face culturally. Essentially the narrative has limited the facts, and few other stories are shared widely enough to gain ground.

Perspective History

Unlike collective history, facts told with a specific bend are often used to enhance the interest of a retelling or the entertainment value. Celebrity biographies are a type of perspective history, as are histories written by advocates of specific ideologies. Propaganda is a perspective history, heavy with purpose and dripping with carefully produced philosophies.

Selecting a new perspective through which to view facts is one of the most popular ways to tell a true story. As an example, consider John Wilkes Booth. Most people know he assassinated President Lincoln in Ford’s Theater in 1865. A few others know he was an actor. James Cross Giblin wrote Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Book and John Wilkes Booth by combining facts about this culturally infamous man with the artful and upstanding life of his brother Edwin and highly popular family of actors. This book is written to be suitable for a 6-9th grade student audience and succeeds in giving a handsome narrative rich with fact and emotion.

 

Rather than preach the downfall of the white-washed narrative, or suggest everything being shared as fact is being used to manipulate people, the point here is to say that nonfiction does not equal dead-end narrative. No, it has not all been said before. Even one new fact can shed a different light on a well-known story, an obscure perspective and shift the emotion, and a strong story can incite action… for peace or for war. Facts are not always the deciding factor, but stories often are.

 

Links/Resources:

http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/history-context_850083.html

http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2010/11/teaching-history-by-telling-stories.html

https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/reviews_in_american_history/v026/26.2kennedy.html

http://www.historytoday.com/richard-kennett/teachers-telling-tales

http://www.tellingstories.org/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201108/the-past-dont-dwell-it-revision-it-part-1

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201108/the-past-dont-dwell-it-revision-it-part-2

https://hbr.org/2012/06/if-you-dont-like-your-future-r.html

 

Journaling About Stressful Events: Effects of Cognitive Processing and Emotional Expression – Philip Ullrick, M.A. and Susan Lutgendorf, Ph.D.

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1207/S15324796ABM2403_10#page-1

 

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