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Returning to Stories

It’s that time of year when scholarship applications come due, which has given me an opportunity to revisit parts of my own story as it has evolved over the course of my adulthood. In some ways, my work has been closely tied to storytelling ever since my early years at Michigan State, where I co-founded a queer student magazine that emphasized first-person writing and thought-provoking conversations about people’s true lives and experiences. That experience came in handy over my career as I moved from publishing (not what I thought it would be) to social work and community organizing. At different points in my work I’ve had opportunities to use storytelling as a strategy for building programs and/or participation. For a while I was able to re-create the magazine format for an HIV prevention publication, which brought to light rich stories about participants’ lives, their struggles, and their self-conceptions of being queer, sexually active adults in a complicated, sometimes contrarian society. Eventually, though, the emphasis shifted as I was asked to do more formal work like grant writing, often using formulaic templates that the agency had copied and resubmitted as rote for several years.

Recently I was looking back on a scholarship application I submitted a couple years ago, while I was still working for that particular nonprofit. I didn’t receive any funding from this program, and in retrospect I see why. My responses to the essay question, while not bad, were also not terribly compelling. I’d written a laundry list of my achievements similar to the formula I saw my agency use for those fairly rote, mundane grant proposals. Reading through that essay again, I saw that it lacked a story, a meaningful narrative that traced my growth and development over time. There was no sense of past struggles, transformation, or self-revelations, only “I have accomplished this, and your money will help me do this…”

In my experience, the power of a story comes from the key moment when we find ourselves in someone’s narrative—being able to relate to the challenges presented, locate our feelings and do a self-appraisal, and then weigh the plausibility of the resolution (if it’s even achieved). When it comes to grants and scholarships, I think the key question for review committees would be whether the story presented is compelling enough for them to commit their funder’s resources, i.e. seeing a fit for themselves in the story. In research, I think it’s similar in that we are again trying to convey the investigation’s story in a way that demonstrates transparency and plausibility—the leaps we make in drawing conclusions have to be grounded in the best evidence available. Interestingly, as I barrel toward starting my dissertation I find myself returning to the essence of storytelling as the core focus of my work. While I’m not sure I really strayed too far from this endeavor, I know that for a while I felt too caught up in following the technical conventions of work and school to really see how essential these elements have always been to my work.

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About Michael Lee

South Minneapolis queer writer, researcher, educator, and social change enthusiast. Currently researching and writing a biography of the late journalist Randy Shilts.

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