What's a Small Story?

At this time in America's public life, the bonds between parents and children are shattered regularly by gun violence, immigration cruelties, and the everyday struggles of families without enough money and time to do justice to children. Our hearts are heavy with grief. How different our lives would be if the bonds that connect us to our loved ones were what mattered most to all our politicians--if those bonds were what everyone understood to be our biggest stories.   

I've been thinking of "big" and "small" stories because recently I spoke to someone who works with Hollywood producers. I asked what sorts of stories producers are looking for now. She said they all want "big stories."

Jokingly, I asked, "What's a big story? One with bombs it it, maybe a war?"

"Yes," she said, all irony aside. Bombs and war make big stories. As we continued talking, I saw that anything involving large-scale terror, and violence was "big," in Hollywood's vernacular. Why? Because these stories earn many times over the money it costs to make them.

If they put the same resources and time into "small" stories, these stories, too, might earn big money. When our expectations drive our resource allocation, they often come true. But in any case, this is the mentality of Hollywood right now.

I wanted to laugh; I wanted to weep. It's not as if I hadn't known. I've observed for a long time, even from the kids' movies my daughter watched in her younger years from Disney and Pixar, that most movies devolve into an all-out, us-versus-them conflict in which the good guys always win. But these stories are not the stories we need today.

Because in fact, in wartime, no one really wins. 

To tell that story of a war in which no one wins, you may need to go small. You can tell the story of the baker in the village who struggles to get flour to bake bread to sell or give to people who have no food or money. This story breaks our hearts by teaching us what it's like to live in a time and place during a war. We don't have to see people's bodies torn apart. We don't have to perpetuate the idea that war has winners.

What are the stories that last? A look at many of the books considered classics in America--The Grapes of Wrath, The Bluest Eye, The Scarlet Letter, 1984, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Lord of the Flies, to name a random few--reveals that they're the so-called small stories. Stories of individuals who want something badly, yet live in the grip of social and personal forces they can't control. Not thousands of people, but individuals we get to know.

The gift of a so-called small story is that it brings us close. This is how any story builds compassion. In experiencing the story, we are brought from our usual approach to large human struggles--an abstract or piercing sorrow, perhaps a contribution of money or time--to a deep, body-based understanding. This, we understand, is what this situation means.

This is why a picture of a naked nine-year-old girl running from a napalm attack in Vietnam in 1972 holds such power to show us the terror and horror of that war. We aren't looking at the soldiers. We aren't looking at fighter planes. We're looking at one girl. A powerful story of an individual, whether told in pictures, words, or both, creates a bond with those who apprehend it. This individual becomes an emblem in our hearts of that kind of experience. This story we see or hear or read helps us grow. 

This is what I wanted to do with the story of Lilli de Jong

Every story of a mother and a child is a so-called small story. Yet it's where every human life begins. With that bond, or that lack of a bond, an infant's life is set on its path. And each mother opens her life to take on the life of another, not knowing what may come, what joy and tragedy and struggle, what sacrifices. This happens to individuals millions of times a year, around the globe.

To me, as far as stories go, that's enormous.

(To read the full essay that grew out of this post and appeared on Signature Reads, go here.) 

Janet BentonComment