Sunday, September 4, 2011

How to Tell a Story

I can't get Scott Carrier's voice out of my mind. Yes, the physical voice that resonates from the radio; and this morning the insistent voice that calls from the lines and paragraphs of "Prisoner of Zion."

How does he do it? How does Scott do his verbal magic?

There are answers in "Najibullah in America, Orem, Utah 2011."

Najibullah Niazi, candidate for UVU President
The story begins with this sentence: "I first met Najibullah Niazi in Afghanistan in the late fall of 2001, at the beginning of the longest war in American history." 

Najib's name in its full form is the antithesis of the spare, even gaunt "I." It is unfamiliar, almost opaque to a speaker of English. Welcome to a foreign world; and by the way, this war is the longest American war in history.

Lesson #1: wed the unfamiliar with a matter-of-fact surprise (it was a surprise to me) and the story is launched.

"For the next three weeks, until I left the country, he was my guide and translator, the best I ever had. He could go anywhere and talk to anybody with charm and cunning. He could shape shift, and he could lie -- never to hurt anybody but only to get by and survive."

Lesson #2: a good storyteller lies, never to hurt anybody but for the good of the story, and does so with charm and cunning.

The story shifts from Afghanistan to Utah Valley University, to Najib's graduation. Both Najib and Scott are waring caps and gowns, for Scott is now at professor of communications at the university. This will be a double story, of Najib's accommodation to the U.S. system of education and of Scott's accommodation to the life of a teacher.

Lesson #3: good texts, like textiles, are woven of several threads. Not any threads, but of well-suited threads.

Scott quotes the tearful Mormon graduation speaker and concludes "This is where we ended up. UVU and the Mormons took us both in from the cold, but now Najib is getting out and I may be here to stay, at least for the time being."

[My own angry post about this graduation speaker and his assault on Najib and all non-Mormon participants in the graduation is here:]

The story shifts back from the graduation to what Scott did to bring Najib to Utah when he was threatened for having been a translator for an American writer. The key to acceptance, Scott tells Najib, will be your story. It will show your fluency in English and your ability to do college work. 

"Three weeks later I got the first draft by email. It was barely readable -- full of misspellings, grammatical and syntactical errors, problems with punctuation and capitalization, and so on. Still, once you figured out what he was saying, it was an amazing story."

Lesson #4: good stories come from experience.

Najib then sent his story to me, at UVU, at Scott's suggestion, without changing a thing. Scott then writes that I "wrote back in less than an hour, saying 'We want him. Tell him he's accepted.'"

I did want him, but the "we" involved a counselor responsible for international students who acted quickly and knowledgeably on my recommendation and after Najib sent a fat package of materials related to his sketchy but impressive formal education, including lots of certificates from training he had done at the U.N. office where he had worked.

This kind of streamlining, stripping down, and conflating continues in the next paragraph in which Scott lays out the story of my move from BYU to UVSC and the development of the vibrant state university in a couple of sentences that get some of the facts wrong but that convey the creative energy of the place (I had nothing to do with the innovative "ethics and values" course, for instance).

Lesson #5: while a good story may be a lie, it should also be a mostly truthful lie and the lie should be in the service of the story.

The story continues, contrasting Najib's story at UVU with Scott's own. It is full of observations like this one: "Imagine a young Johnny Depp playing an exuberant Afghan refugee and you pretty much have Najibullah in America."

There's much more to the story, like the independent-study class Scott sets up for Najib so he can read and write about classic American writers in the service of learning how to write himself (Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, and Catcher in the Rye) but I'll end with the part where Scott is helping Najib conceptualize an essay about DADA for a class Alex Caldiero is teaching:

'Take out a pen and some paper and tell me, Who were the Dadaists?' I said.

Najib put his notebook in his lap and sucked his pen and said, 'The Dadaists were artists in Europe who thought art had too many rules and was boring, so they moved to Zurich in Switzerland where there were no rules about art.'

'Excellent,' I said. 'Write that down, just what you said.'

It took him about five minutes and when he read it back he'd completely changed the wording and it made no sense at all. . . .

'Look down at the river,' I said. 'Do you see any places where you could jump from rock to rock and make it across to the other side?'

'No,' he said, 'there is too much water.'

'Well, imagine there is a place like that. I want you to think about writing as like jumping from rock to rock. Can you swim?'

'Not very well.'

'Good. If you fall, you'll drown. In order to jump to a rock you must answer my question honestly in your own voice, not the voice of someone else. If you try to answer in someone else's voice, you'll fall into the river and drown. Do you understand?'


'You've jumped to the first rock by telling me who the Dadaists were, now jump again and tell me, 'What did the Dadaists do?'

. . .

'The one called Duchamp took a toilet and turned it upside down to make people see it for its shape, not what it does.'

'And what do you think about that?'

'But what I think doesn't matter,' he said.

'So now you're in the middle of the stream and you're just going to stay there?' I asked. 'Will I have to call your father and tell him you were last seen in the middle of a river contemplating Dada? In order to keep going you have to say what you think, now, jump!'

Lesson # 6: If you want to be a good writer, find a mentor like Scott Carrier.


michael morrow said...

like i said earlier....bring on the stretch marks.....thx

michael morrow said...

hey scott...whats Najib doing now...maybe a little update...thx