ot all stories begin with “once upon a time.”
Traditionally, we think of stories as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. They can be neatly divided up into the major anecdotes, the turning points that made the protagonist who he or she is by the final word.
But when it comes to actually constructing a story, any writer will attest that it’s much more complicated than chopping a narrative into neat, easily digested pieces and knitting them back together. Otherwise, every plot would run the same course.
For Lauryn Higgins – an active journalist, social media manager, and brand content creator of about four years as well as a grad assistant currently studying at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – the best way to begin breaking down any story at all stems from the emotions elicited during the telling. It’s from there, she says, that a story forges a connection and appeals to the listener on a more personal and intellectual level.
Image courtesy of Lauryn Higgins
“Connection is what drew me to storytelling and to journalism,” Higgins says. “I think every person, regardless of age, class or gender, wants to be connected in some way and ultimately wants connection. So, when a story can provide that, then I know I’ve done my job.”
Writers like Higgins aspire every day to meet the fine line between pathos and widespread inspiration, and for her it’s a matter of finding those points of human interest. Then, she says that storytelling is the most powerful tool for change available to us, the means by which we can expose modern issues and find a way to evolve. In a way, the privilege of carrying forward someone else’s story is what inspires her to keep learning to be a better writer, to continue on to her own idea of enlightenment and success.
“I think the day I stop wanting to learn is the day I have to quit this job,” she admits. “For me, enlightenment is a constant and exciting journey. It’s not only learning and growing as a storyteller but also learning what my strengths and weaknesses are and accepting those.”
So what exactly is success, and why do we so often feel compelled to tell its story? Modern dictionaries simply define success as, “a favorable or desired outcome: the attainment of wealth, favor or eminence.”
The idea remains the same between sources, but regardless of the similar verbiage used to describe it, none of the standard definitions of the word can tell the casual observer exactly what it means to reach a pinnacle, either personally or professionally. It is at this crossroads that many storytellers, no matter their platform or preferred subjects of study, find themselves wondering what constitutes a success story, and whether or not one will speak to the audience the writer intends to reach.
Image courtesy of Melanie Deziel
“Sometimes when we see stories of others’ success, it can give us a model of what’s possible. I think for many people, particularly those who don’t see stories like theirs told often, this can be extremely valuable,” says Melanie Deziel, the founder of StoryFuel and a brand storytelling keynote speaker.
From one writer to another, Higgins expresses a similar opinion, that they serve a greater purpose toward inspiring others, engendering ideas, and giving way to self-awareness when we can draw comparisons between ourselves and the hero of the story. But, she says, with that power and influence, success stories are often also weighty enough that they need to be regarded with a measure of wisdom.
“I think success stories are wonderful, but should be approached and used like an addictive substance: as in alcohol, caffeine, sex, shopping,” she says. “They can provide us with a boost of confidence or resurgence that we need, but I also think they can be deadly and destructive.”
Along with her own positive impression of representing enlightened journeys, though, Deziel cautions others from letting these examples deter them from unrealistic expectations.
“Success stories often paint a rosy picture of success; by focusing on the positive, and by curating the inspirational and the impressive aspects of someone’s experience, they often leave out the struggles, the self-doubt, the failures and the insecurities that plague us on our own journey.”
So as storytellers, the ultimate question we must ask ourselves, and even our readers at the end of the day, is what we hope to glean from sharing these examples of success? These glimpses into the lives of others can help shed some light on ourselves, but no two stories are the same.
And that, Deziel says, is where success as a writer means achieving balance. In her experience with both larger media companies and her own venture, it’s important to make a model of what could be, while accepting that there is always something more to the words we convey. The smaller points of understanding can come together to eventually create a clearer picture in our own lives as well as our stories of others.
“For me, success means being able to share my message with others in a way that’s helpful, having the ability to create good word, and having the time and mental bandwidth to do the other, less tangible, things that are important to me,” she explains.
Storytellers constantly face the dilemma between what they want to write, and what their readers want to hear. In matters of success, of understanding, it all boils down to expressing the plot in a way that inspires others, that appeals to the human interests we all share on our own personal journeys to whatever we deem to be enlightenment. It’s about knowing how to take a step back and accept a story’s face value on an individual level, as well as being able to absorb the bigger picture.
And in some cases, it’s finding the courage to apply it to ourselves so that we can grow stronger as modern day bards, wherever we choose to tell stories: from beginning to end.
“It’s easy to look at where you are and think of what’s working, to grow comfortable, and to avoid uncomfortable situations and choices,” Deziel says. “But I think it’s also important to remember that it often takes a fair amount of trust and courage to make the big choices, to have the hard conversations, and to stand your ground when backing down would be easier… And if I can remember that, then when new scary situations and choices arise, I can focus on the potential gains that can come from these scary moments, and not let fear stop me from reaching higher.”
An avid lover of stories in any shape and form, Katelynn Watkins currently lives and works in Wilmington, North Carolina, as a digital content specialist for Sage Island and contributes regularly to regional and local magazines – WNC magazine, North Brunswick Magazine, Wrightsville Beach Magazine, Cape Fear Living – as well as her own blog, From Pen to Fin. Watkins is also an MFA candidate in Emerson College’s Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing program, set to earn her degree in May 2019, and has a BA in mass communication from UNC Asheville. She spends any free time perfecting her novel, exploring the coast, staying fit, and reading as much as she possibly can. Open to connecting with all minds, like or otherwise, you can find her on LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter.