But limitations? That not something we discuss. Msimang made some powerful points.
Strength 1. Stories bring people together. At a certain level they create solidarity.
Limitation 1. This solidarity is usually an illusion. When you read about someone overcoming poverty or escaping her abuser, you have that fuzzy feel-good moment. Ahhhh, she made it. But unless you do something with this feeling, it’s too elusive to be solidarity.
Strength 2. Stories make us care about people we like. Sounds a lot like Strength #1, doesn’t it? The difference becomes clear in the limitation.
Limitation 2. We are less likely to care about someone who isn’t likeable. That’s why anti-heroes and unreliable narrators are hard to pull off. It is incredibly difficult to bridge the gap between readers and angry, outspoken narrators. This is a huge problem because, as Msimang points out, it is often the story that makes us squirm that we most need to hear.
Strength 3. Stories help us connect at the personal level, but …
Limitation 3. It is remarkably hard for people to see the connection between the personal woe and the societal problem.
Clearly, Msimang was talking to us as readers and her message was clear. Don’t think reading is enough. Don’t shy away from ugly stories. Think about the larger causes of individual hardships.
There are several things that we can take away from this as writers. First of all, we have to be willing to tell the hard stories and help our readers make uncomfortable connections. It is easy to say that poor children fail because they go to bad schools. In Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance makes it clear that a tumultuous home life kept him from getting all that he could out of school. I can only imagine how hard this memoir was to write because it is certainly hard to hear.
Secondly we must challenge our readers. Children’s writers talk about takeaways and calls to action. We need to write powerful stories that will stick in the readers mind. We need to give them an ear worm that is going to stick with them and remind them that there is something they MUST do. That something is the call to action, the step that we challenge our readers to take.
As writers, we have the power to create worlds and change lives. To activate this power, we need to tell moving stories and dare our readers to step up and act.
To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.
Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults which starts again 2/6/2017.