SPS-303: How Stories Help Us Process Trauma – with David Chrisinger
Whatever we’re writing, hooking readers depends on good storytelling. Dave Chrisinger shares with James some of the best storytelling tips he’s learned from both writing and teaching.
- On telling stories professionally for the US government
- The trust that readers have in storytellers, and how to gain that trust
- The balance between context and aesthetics in writing good stories
- Looking to real life to craft compelling stories
- Knowing what to leave out of a story and why that matters
- Why memoir is not about interesting bits of someone’s like, but is about what we learn
- How story and situation make a compelling tale
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
SPS-303: How Stories Help Us Process Trauma - with David Chrisinger
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show-
Dave Chrisinger: It's like you're trying to put someone in a place, in a time, in a situation that feels real to them. For me, it's about evidence. It's about showing that I can trust this storyteller to put me in that place.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to The Self-Publishing Show. We mustn't get COVID because we are going to last Vegas next weekend, next month-
Mark Dawson: Next Tuesday.
James Blatch: Next Tuesday... Monday.
Mark Dawson: Tuesday. Monday?
James Blatch: Monday, 8th.
Mark Dawson: Oh yeah, Monday. Yes, you're right. It is Monday.
James Blatch: Oh my God.
Mark Dawson: I'm booking meetings now, and I've got a meeting with my editor at Tantor. It's all my fault. She said, "Let's let's have breakfast." I said, "Well, let's do it on the Monday." Then I'm like, "No, actually, I'm flying Tuesday." Then I check, no, it was Monday-
James Blatch: Oh my God.
Mark Dawson: Poor Jen.
James Blatch: Please don't turn up at the airport on Tuesday.
Mark Dawson: No. Actually, in my head, it was Tuesday. I really have to think about this because I'm going to make a terrible mistake. But yes, Monday, Monday the 8th, isn't it?
James Blatch: Sorry, I should say hello to everybody. Hello, everybody. Thank you very much for listening. We are rambling right from the beginning.
This is, of course, 20Booksto50k Conference, 20Books Las Vegas, or 20Books Vegas, I think it's called, taking place in a new venue this year, in Bally's Hotel on the strip in Las Vegas. It's going to be the biggest gathering of indie authors on the planet. Well-done to Michael Anderle and Craig Martelle, particularly Craig, who does all the legwork-
Mark Dawson: Mostly Craig.
James Blatch: Mostly Craig does all the legwork on this. Incredible job he does. It's a huge undertaking and very impressive. They've got a brilliant app where you can pick out the sessions you want to go, and so say you're interested in going or book yourself in. He's very good behind the scenes.
We are going to be doing a presentation together, so we're getting requests for our presentation stuff, all very well organised. Better organised than us, because I've got to do the presentation tomorrow, or tidy it up tomorrow. But if you're going to 20Books Vegas, too, come and say hello to us.
Mark Dawson: Socially distant, please.
James Blatch: Well, reasonably socially distant. I think we're all going to be wearing mask, aren't we? I can't remember what's happening, but we'll see. Yeah, do come and say hello. Be lovely to see you. Our session is on Thursday afternoon, I believe.
Mark Dawson: Don't ask me.
James Blatch: I think it's Thursday afternoon, and we've already got a few meetings booked up along the way. We'll probably record as much as we can whilst we're there, podcast interviews and bits and pieces. And maybe we'll even do a wrap, where maybe we'll do a top and tail from the conference and show people what it looks like in the conference hall, Mark, or from the swimming pool. And one other thing I should say is happy birthday, Mark Dawson.
Mark Dawson: Oh yeah. Yeah, it's my birthday. We are recording this on a Sunday, and I've been away all week. Yes, today is my birthday, which has been... I don't know, you get to our age, James, and it really is just another day.
James Blatch: It's not yesterday. It's today, isn't it, your birthday?
Mark Dawson: It's today. Yes, my birthday is today. Yeah. Did I say yesterday?
James Blatch: 31st, Halloween.
Mark Dawson: Yep, Halloween. That's my birthday. So James sent me a huge bar of chocolate, which I'm now thinking I need to get that away from Scout, because if he gets his teeth on that, it's-
James Blatch: He'll be to the vet.
Mark Dawson: ... a trip to the vet, and I can't take him to the vet because my vet is in hospital with COVID.
James Blatch: So he mustn't eat it.
Mark Dawson: He mustn't eat the chocolate.
James Blatch: I do have another present for you, but it hasn't arrived. Hopefully, it'll arrive in time for Vegas and everyone will be able to see it.
Mark Dawson: Oh, that's interesting. Codpiece?
James Blatch: It's a new codpiece. Yeah, a new codpiece. It's funny, I was going to say that as well.
Mark Dawson: That's weird.
James Blatch: Weird. That is creepy. Okay, we've got to the point now where we can finish each other's-
Mark Dawson: Sentence.
James Blatch: Sandwiches.
Mark Dawson: Sandwiches.
James Blatch: Right. Okay. We've got a couple of things to do before our interview with Dave Chrisinger today, a really interesting interview about stories, absolutely the heart of what we do in our writing.
And I'm deep into my drafting at the moment, so I'm really thinking lots and lots about stories and how they work. In fact, my book goes to my development editor tomorrow. Tomorrow, yes. So today's the last day of drafting. It's not quite finished, but he's going to take what I've done so far and give me some pointers. Slightly nervous about that, of course. But that's coming up in a moment.
Before then, we want to talk about the SPF Foundation. As you know, we produce premium courses. We are closely aligned with lots of people in the indie space who provide services like Reedsy, for instance, and other authors. But we do appreciate that getting from zero, from writing your first book or two, to a marketing platform takes an investment, as any business on the planet does you. Have to invest in it to start off with, and effectively that's a period of time where you are putting money in and not seeing any money out.
It's a bit of a gamble and a risk as well, and not everyone is in a position where they can do that, certainly can't do it to the level it needs to be done to give yourself a good chance of success. So we look out for those people, and we have a foundation which you can apply for and we give a grant.
I think it's worth two and a half thousand dollars. Actually, it's worth more than that because you get a load of stuff from us for free. So all in all, it's probably closer to $4,000 worth of material that you get-
Mark Dawson: And cash.
James Blatch: ... to give you a good chance. We've had some fantastic stories, and we've got somebody coming up soon, actually, who's going to be one of the alumni of the SPF Foundation to tell us what a difference it's made to their career and their life. But we're in the position of shaping things up for the new year, Mark.
Mark Dawson: We are. My wife, Lucy, handles the foundation, with help from a few others, but she actually asked me to just mention on the podcast the sponsorship situation this year. We have eight sponsorship places available. Ricardo and the team at Reedsy, they are, as usual... In fact, they have, I think from the start, so three or four or five years even that they've been doing this, they're sponsoring four places.
Marc Reklau, our friend in... Where is he now? He's all over the place, Marc. He was in Monaco. Not Monaco. He was in Malta. Maybe he's gone somewhere else. Back to Germany again, possibly?
James Blatch: Is he? Oh, I thought he was in the Malta.
Mark Dawson: I think he's moving. Yeah, he was after some texts about it, but I think he's off somewhere. He's on the move, anyway. So Marc sponsors a place. I think that's the second or third year Marc's done that. Lucy Score is sponsoring a romance place. Again, that's a repeat from Lucy. And also repeating is Ricci Wolman at Written Word Media. And we've got a new sponsor this year, James Rosone, who is sponsoring a place for a military veteran. You don't have to write military fiction, but because James has history in the U.S. military, he is sponsoring a place for a military vet.
So if anyone else is interested in sponsoring a place, now is the time to tell us. I think it's $2,500, is the amount that's donated. That can be spent by the author on editing, covers, whatever they want, ads. If you want to do that, drop us a line at [email protected]
Thank you to those people I just mentioned. Their support is really gratefully accepted. As you mentioned, it's made a big difference to several writers since we've been doing this. I don't know if you were thinking about Britt Andrews, who's the-
James Blatch: Yes, who's coming up.
Mark Dawson: Coming on the podcast. Britt, without spoiling the podcast, actually is now doing five figures a month, I think, and may have retired her husband, things along those lines. And she's not the only one to have done well.
You don't need a huge amount of money to start off as an indie publisher. In terms of capital requirements to begin a business, it's very low. But you do need some, and not everyone is in a position to be able to drop $500 on a cover, for example. We recognise that, and it's lovely that we're able to, with our sponsors, be able to reach out and help people onto the right track.
James Blatch: Yeah, absolutely. There's a dropdown, isn't it, on the website? If you just go to selfpublishingformula.com, there's a tab at the top, click on SPF Foundation if you want to apply. We normally make those decisions in January.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, two things. If you'd like to sponsor someone, then email us. If you'd like to apply, go to the website. You see the foundation tab, and it's all fairly straightforward from there.
James Blatch: Good. And thank you to Lucy in the background working really hard keeping that foundation going, and to our lovely sponsors.
I was going to mention Atticus as well. We had Dave Chesson on recently talking about Atticus, which is a competitor or alternative to Vellum and Scrivener and other things all wrapped up into one. It has gone live. He's launched it. So you can go to atticus.io and check it out. I think it's $147, which I suspect is a bit of a launch price.
The way Dave works is he doesn't like the subscription model. He's somebody you pay and you get the software, and then it's yours forever. So I think that's a pretty good deal. I'd be interested to hear how people get on with it. A huge amount of effort and some amount of pain goes into giving birth to these new products, but Dave is somebody I think who can make something stick over time. So check out Atticus if you get a chance.
Right. Marky Mark, shall we move on to our interview?
Mark Dawson: Yes, Jamesy James.
James Blatch: Let's do that. Well, his name is Dave Chrisinger, and he lives in the U.S. He actually works for the government telling stories, which, I know, cue joke. But the real theme of this interview, and we do talk about a few things, but the theme of this interview is the basic thing that if you tell somebody something, they probably won't remember it; if you tell them a story, they'll remember it.
It's so important for everything we do. Obviously, fiction writers, we write stories, but actually very important for nonfiction writers, in fact, may be even more important, because it might not be intuitive or occur to a nonfiction writer that they should be writing a story, a narrative, but that's the way nonfiction books work best. So here's Dave, and we'll be back for a chat.
Dave Chrisinger. Did I say that right?
Dave Chrisinger: You did.
James Blatch: I really liked your description of how to say it. It's like Kissinger, a name we know, but with a Chris.
Dave Chrisinger, welcome to The Self Publishing Show. Lovely to have you here. You are somebody who's got, I think, an interesting aspect on the whole thing about stories, and how everything really is about stories. We're going to explore some of that.
Why don't you give us the skinny on who Dave Chrisinger is?
Dave Chrisinger: Dave Chrisinger is about a million miles from where he thought he was going to be. I ended up in graduate school right after college, studying European history, and really just fell in love with the job of a historian, to dig into archives and look for stories in the material and figure out a way to make some piece of evidence relevant to a reader today. That was what I really loved about history.
Then the stock market collapsed and the housing market collapsed and the academic job market collapsed, and I found myself working for the federal government as, basically, a professional storyteller helper person. It was a job I never knew existed with the agency in the United States, it's called the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
It's like the research and policy evaluation arm of the U.S. Congress. My job specifically was to work with economists and statisticians and folks that had lots of technical expertise to do important public policy research and then translate it for the lay reader, because members of Congress aren't always expert in the things that we're asking them to vote on and everything else.
So I developed this niche talent of seeing the messy and figuring out how to put it into a narrative and to put it into something coherent. That led to teaching public policy writing, and that led to teaching professional communication, and then that led to teaching more personal essay writing and memoir writing.
I joke, it's like whether you want to tell something really personal or something really professional, trying to change someone's opinion, that's my skillset, is helping folks do that.
James Blatch: Wow. Well, I'd like to explore some of that, particularly the storytelling. I think that's quite enlightened of a government to understand that everything ultimately is a story, and to have somebody at the policy creation stage thinking about that. I bet they don't do that in the UK. I think that sounds quite progressive to me.
Dave Chrisinger: I don't think so. The reason I say that is because there was a professor of, I think he was a political scientist from a university in the UK, who reviewed my book, and three or four times mentioned this was the American way.
James Blatch: Right, in a slightly disparaging tone. "This was the American way."
Dave Chrisinger: A little bit, but generally he had good things to say, so I'll let it slide.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, let's talk about it, because I used to work in PR a little bit for my sins, and we got sent out to do, I don't know, goodness knows what, stories on pharmaceutical companies or... I don't know. I can't even remember now. Nurses. We did quite a lot of medical stuff, but a load of other stuff.
I found myself repeating the same thing over and over again to executives and people, that everything is a story, that you can tell somebody something and it won't mean anything; you tell them a story, and there's a good chance they'll remember it. What is the story of what you are doing?
It didn't take long speaking to somebody to find, usually, brilliant stories behind what they were doing, but they were the last people to tell you unless you really sat them down and worked out the connection between something they were doing in the modern day in High Street with something they did 100 years ago. That's what we do as story writers, as novel writers, but I think maybe even novelists don't realise everything is like that.
You are writing the own story of your life, right?
Dave Chrisinger: Yeah. It baffles me, honestly, that humans have evolved to understand the world through stories. That's what our brains do. They filter information and put it into a story to make sense of everything that's happening. It's so much in our DNA that it baffles me when really, really smart people who really know their stuff, they're not dummies, but they know so much that they just can't remember or can't convince themselves that, "Oh, the way I learn things is through stories, but everyone else must learn them through this repetition of facts." That's just not how it works.
Like you said, I love that point you made about once you sat them down and asked them some questions about it, all the stories would start to come out. That's what I do as an instructor, is I see the, we call it the crappy first draft, and I don't even touch it, usually, because it's not ready for that. What the writer is ready for is, "Tell me about this."
No one is ever going to say, "Well, in the year 2010, the U.S. census reported blah, blah, blah." They're going to tell you a story, and then I'm writing that down. I'm feverishly taking notes. And usually, within 20 minutes, I'd say, "There. There it is, found the story. That's what you need to say, and then use the evidence to support it."
It is a very similar thing in memoir writing or in a novel. It's like you're trying to put someone in a place, in a time, in a situation feels real to them. There are good ways of achieving that and effective ways of achieving that, and then there are ways of just not doing that very well at all. For me, it's about evidence. It's about showing that I can trust this storyteller to put me in that place.
James Blatch: Yeah, and it's surprising, I can imagine in government you work this out, how powerful it is when you do get somebody to understand the story. Everything can change then.
You see this unfolding, don't you, with crises that happen in companies? Like BP's explosion in the Gulf, which was famously very badly handled. They had no face to it. They had no narrative. They had no story. They lost control of it. Anyone who criticised it, that was what filled the airwaves. PR companies, I think, use that today. You've got to create a story. It's not PR. It sounds very cynical.
There is a story there. And if you're not going to tell it, someone else will, or people will make up a story from the bits they get.
Dave Chrisinger: Exactly. Now I teach public policy writing at the graduate level at the University of Chicago, and I tell my students this all the time, which is, "If you don't tell a story with the data, your reader is going to tell a story. They're going to bring their worldview and their experience and their political ideology and their identity to that data, and they're going to tell a story. So unless you are okay with that, you're okay with somebody taking your work and spinning it into a different direction, then you've got to own that story."
I think it's usually an experience that you just need to really have once with an editor before that just clicks; you just go, "Oh yeah, that's how I'm persuaded, so that's probably how other people are persuaded as well."
James Blatch: Yeah. And the great thing about us as writers, particularly fiction writers, but even nonfiction writers, is we are gods in our story creation. We can completely control that narrative. Not completely, actually, because once someone starts reading... In fact, I read a brilliant quote today, I think from Andrei... Is it Koskovsky? I can't remember the surname. Tarkovsky, who said, "A thousand people reading the same book is a thousand different books."
Dave Chrisinger: Yes, it is.
James Blatch: It's a great quote, because you have to understand, your best intentions about telling your story, someone starts reading it... Before anyone reads it, by the way, it's not story; it's ink on a page. It's nothing. When someone starts reading it, that's when it becomes active, and they bring their own interpretation to it.
We're in a strong position, aren't we, as writers to control that narrative, or have a go at it?
Dave Chrisinger: It's funny you say we're godlike because I sometimes describe the kind of reporting or the kind of research that I need to do to tell a nonfiction story as like, "What if I was God, and I wanted to be able to know what someone was thinking or what it smelled like or what the air was like that day?" I want to be able to tell those details in my story, so that just means I have to think about that ahead of time.
Then when I sit down with that person to interview them, or I do a site visit and I see what something looks like, I can pick out those details. It can give nonfiction writing a little bit of that fictional literary quality. I only use that in nonfiction where I want to place the reader in that place and in that time.
That's how I sometimes differentiate between a story and a report. If I was being asked by the president to do a three-minute brief on, I don't know, the future of higher education in the United States, I wouldn't walk in and say, "On a crisp October morning, the orange leaves descended into the quad." It's like, "I've got three minutes. I need to make my point, and I need to explain how I know this is true, and I need to make a recommendation on what to do about it. And I have three minutes."
You think about that as an exercise sometimes for a nonfiction writer, or a fiction writer, is like, "What are the three main points you're trying to say, and can you sum it up?" For me, I like to be able to know that before I really dive into a story.
I'm not a write by the seat of your pants kind of person. It feels too directionless for me, so I have to do a lot more outlining maybe than the average person. And that doesn't mean I'm rigid about the outline. It just means I have to know where the signposts are, and then know when to deviate when it makes sense.
James Blatch: It's interesting because there are different styles. Some people sit down and seem to be able to write perfectly formed stories without any outlining, and probably couldn't answer those questions. Some people can't tell you what their story is about, but they are very well-formed stories that-
Dave Chrisinger: I'm always a little sceptical-
James Blatch: Really? You think they work harder than they let on?
Dave Chrisinger: Well, I guess this is the way I look at it. I judge myself as a writer and as the quality of the piece that I wrote by the sorts of feedback that I get from a reader. What I mean by that is not, did they like it, did they not like it, but did the reader write a comment about something in their life or something that they have experience with? Do they feel compelled to tell me, "Oh, this reminded me of my father, and this helped me make sense of something he said."
Those are the kinds of reactions that I'm trying to get with my piece. I want it to start a conversation. I want it to be something that makes them think differently about their life. Whether they agree with me or disagree with me, the fact that they might look at something slightly different is a huge win. In this world where we seemingly can't convince anyone to look at anything differently... I haven't gotten that cynical yet. I think it takes better stories, and it takes better messengers.
James Blatch: What are you doing at the moment, having moved on from the government?
Dave Chrisinger: I'm directing a writing programme at a graduate school. This is a professional school for public policy analysts. This is a thing in the U.S., where we have law school, we have business school, we have medical school, and now we have public policy school, people that want to go into that line of work. I get to work with some amazing students who come from all over the world.
I do a little bit of writing about public policy communication. I have a second edition of a book that's coming out in February on writing public policy. But if I'm being totally honest, my real love is personal storytelling in memoir, and especially the kinds of personal stories and memoir-type stories that show growth or show transformation or show a change over time.
We're all just so seeped in terrible news all the time. I'm really gravitated towards stories that, maybe they're not, "Oh, it has a great, happy ending and everything's wonderful," but there's a transformation that the writer goes through.
I just like to be along for that ride. I like to think that something's not hopeless, or that even if it will never be "better," it can be survivable. There's a little bit of, I don't know, the joy of being a human I feel when I read stories like that. And it can be so easy to, especially if you've been through a traumatic experience or if you've experienced a lot of challenges, or even just were born into a life that's full of challenges, it can be really easy to just pile that up for the reader. I think that appeals to a certain kind of voyeuristic reader who wants to "see how the other half lives," but if you want to really connect with someone, I think the story has to go deeper that a list of terrible things that happen.
James Blatch: There has to be a change, a journey. We use the word journey. Mark hates using it, but that basically is what we're talking about, isn't it? Which is a key component of a fiction novel as well. In fact, for me, it's one of the signs of a story not working is... What was it? I think I quoted this before on the podcast. We watched all the Marvel films during lockdown, and there's an incredible Hulk film slightly out of the normal, I think maybe made by Sony or someone, not the regular ones, and he doesn't change. Banner does not change from the beginning. He's the same at the beginning, with the same motivations, as he is in the last, which is why that film flopped. It didn't work.
It used to annoy me as a journalist when there were disasters like an earthquake and the coverage followed a very predictable pattern. You knew that 24 hours, 48 hours, maybe 72 hours later, the headline would be the pulling out of the wreckage alive person, maybe a child. I became irrationally annoyed by this because it didn't represent the tragedy. What it represented was a little bit of a fluke here, but it seemed to gloss over the death.
I think that was the wrong way of thinking about it. It was irrational, because we are drawn to that triumph over adversity, aren't we? It's exactly what you're talking about, I think, here, is it's human nature to want to find that, look for that all the time.
When somebody's in the depths, you're reading a memoir about alcoholism or abuse or whatever somebody's been through, what you are looking for and hoping for every time you turn the page is some inkling of overcoming it or growing despite what's happened. I think that's what you're saying.
Dave Chrisinger: Yeah. I would even take it a step further. Once you've maybe had the perspective, or you're writing a novel where you are trying to show this complexity of a character, there is that, "Okay, how did they change? How did they transform?" But then also there's a balance, I think, between what I would describe as context and aesthetics.
Let's think about this in photojournalist terms. If you were capturing a scene of something really terrible, and it looked like a crime scene photo, people wouldn't want to look at it. Some people would, but most people would turn away from that because it's jarring and it shows too much context. It removes the humanity sometimes of the situation, and it's all context.
Then on the far side of that spectrum, you have aesthetics. I think the images or the stories that go too far in that direction can be easily critiqued by saying, "Oh, that's pretty words about ugly places." We just had the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks in the U.S., and there was an image that I remember from 20 years ago of the next day, the towers were in rubble, but there was this American flag flying above the rubble and an eagle had swooped down. That was the image. And you think, "Well, that doesn't really give a lot of context, does it? It's a pretty image about this terrible thing."
I think as a writer, at least for myself, I'm constantly navigating that tension of, "How can I show that, yes, the earthquake was terrible, but there are still people who are saveable, and not lose the context of nobody's going to win this thing?" This doesn't end well. It could end better for some people. But then also not falling too far in that other side of, "Oh, here's the triumphant. We conquered the earthquake." Well, nobody conquers the earthquake. We just deal with it.
That kind of a story, to me, you can show change, even if the change is "I don't feel safe anymore." That's a change. Or "I don't trust the government to help." That's a change. Even if it's a worldview change, if you will, that's enough, I think, for the building blocks of the story.
But you're exactly right. If the character is the same from the beginning to the end, there's really nothing to root for. There's no "is this character going to do this, or are they going to do that?"
My kids love the Marvel movies too, and it kind of blows my mind, actually.... I'm terrible with remembering which one comes in which order and what they're called. But the one where the bad guy is Thanos, and he wants to collect all the stones and destroy half the world's population, my kids watch that, and it has a not-happy ending, and they just accept that. They know that the world is complicated and sometimes bad things happen. I think living through the pandemic has helped them see that.
That's not how the stories were when I was a kid. The superhero stories, the superhero was hardly ever actually challenged. He always won in the end. He always got the girl, there was always this happy ending. So I actually feel heartened that our stories have a little bit more complexity in this generation.
James Blatch: I always think of Superman. Was it Superman II where he was drunk, angry Superman in the-
Dave Chrisinger: Yes.
James Blatch: Which everyone hated at the time, but looking back, was exactly the right thing to do with Superman, to take him out of his context and challenge him. That's when we get interested in the character.
It's natural, I think, isn't it, Dave, to look for hope and look for explanation? You talked about 9/11 and these events.
It's human nature, isn't it, to want answers and to focus on the hopeful aspects of things that come out of it?
Dave Chrisinger: Yeah. I think of this quote, I want to say that this was David Foster Wallace, but I might screw this up. The sentiment was that a good story will comfort the disturbed and will disturb the comfortable. I kind of like that.
There are certain contexts, I think, in which hope really does matter a great deal. I think anything that has to do with climate change, if there's no hope in it, there's just nothing. There's no amount of shaming that's going to make anybody change, so there has to be that image of "I can take a positive step today. And it may not make a huge difference, but if we all take positive steps, there's something to that."
I was talking with a friend of mine who has worked in war zones for two decades as a journalist, and I was asking him about the impact of his work. He said, "If I look at the macro level and I say, 'Are things better in this place or that place?' sometimes yes and sometimes no, but if you look at the individual level, a lot doesn't change for most people." I think we've seen that with the way things ended in Afghanistan.
There's these cycles and these rhythms and these seasonal aspects to suffering and to trauma, and I think there are ways of using that as a context to discuss these kinds of stories, that, yes, it's bad right now, maybe it won't be bad in the future. Well, okay, if we all agree that it can get better, how do we get there? There's a progression of steps there.
But then there is something, too, to be said for telling a story that just kicks you in the gut and makes you question things and refuses to give you the hope. There's something about those stories too. I can't take those in too many in a row, but once in a while, I think it is necessary, even if it's a win but lose kind of story, just to show that we don't always get what we want.
James Blatch: I want to talk a bit more about memoir in a second, because it's a question we get asked a lot about writing memoir.
Is there something in it for fiction writers to study some of this, of the human reaction to tragedies and news, and what people look for in those, to help them craft fiction stories?
Dave Chrisinger: I think so, but I'm also sort of biassed, I think, in the professional communication world. And you'll know this from public relations. We're always thinking audience and purpose, audience and purpose. Who are we communicating with? What do we want them to do with that information?
If you approach it that way as a novelist and you say, "I want this book to appeal to kids that have been living in lockdown for two years." Okay, well, what do you want to do with that book? "I want them to realise that the feelings they're having, all the other kids are having those feelings too." Okay, well, now you can reverse engineer your story a little bit and say, "Here's the effect I want this story to have. What's the best way for me to go about achieving that?"
That's what I mean sometimes about outlining, is just thinking about where do you want to end up and what kind of effect do you want to leave on the reader.
Of course, you can't control how every person responds to a story. Like we mentioned before, sometimes people bring themselves much more to a story and they see something or they project something onto it. I don't think J.D. Salinger wanted people to use Catcher in the Rye as a justification for political assassination. I don't think that was what he was trying to achieve with that book.
I think too about, do I want someone to feel hopeful after they read this book, or do I want them to feel a little more balanced or a little more pessimistic? Do I want someone to be enraged, or do I want them to be comforted? Those are all questions I have to ask myself before I start writing, because that's going to take me down a different path of, well, what structure might work better? What tone in my sentences is more appropriate? Should I use more complicated words or more simple words? Should I have longer sentences, shorter sentences? All of those things have an impact and an effect on the reader.
I love how in the UK that you call periods full stops. That's what they do. They stop a reader. And there's so many interesting ways of playing with sentence structure to make people feel something. That's the kind of stuff that I get really excited about, that idea of tinkering with a message to get a certain reaction.
James Blatch: By the way, I think you call full stop periods, not the other way. I'll claim some provenance on English. Yeah, it's a fascinating area.
And you're right, you can't ultimately stop people... Was it the Reagan guy who had Catcher on the Rye? Whoever that assassin was, you can't ultimately stop people. If you look at the reaction from 9/11 and the pandemic... Actually, think about the pandemic. Some people searching for explanation have gone down the conspiracy theory route. Some people have marvelled at science and how we've been able to react. Some people are hugely cynical about government reaction to it all. There's all the reactions you can think under the sun there.
Ultimately, you can try and guide people to what you want them to think, but it's very important I think, as a story writer, to accept that it's their story now, is the real story now.
Dave Chrisinger: Yes. I think that's a really great point. That can also play into what level of detail you provide in a book. If you're giving 100% detail, you're not allowing the reader to bring any of their own imagination. You can even think about it at that level, of it's no fun to have the author do all the work for you.
I think, for me anyway, there's a joy of coming to a passage in a book and going, "Ooh, this feels like it's going to come back somehow. This feels like it's a thing that I need to pay attention to. I'm going to put a little note here, see if I'm right." Obviously, I approach stories maybe from a more structural perspective just because of my day job, but I don't know, I see those as little treats in a story of, "Oh, I see what you're doing there. I see this is what's happening."
That could be a total accident or it could be totally purposeful. I tend to think, even if it is an accident, it's an intuition. It's an intuition that I need something here. I need to provide this piece of context or I have to describe this, because if I don't describe it this way, you're never going to believe what happens later in the book. Those are the kind of things that I really enjoy.
James Blatch: It's the hardest thing, though, isn't it, for those of us writing for the first time to leave that stuff out, to trust your reader? Stephen King says, "Trust your reader."
Dave Chrisinger: I have a good story of this in the book, where I talk about this very rugged wilderness trip that I went on with an author friend of mine. He was doing research in far northern Canada near the Arctic Ocean and was going to canoe the, I think it's about 1,100-mile, Mackenzie River. It's this huge river that I didn't even know existed.
I went along with him for the first 10 days, and then he had another friend that did 10 days, then another friend, because nobody could take 40 days off from work, except him.
Anyway, he wrote a section where I am one of the characters, because it's part travelogue, part history. I was teaching a writing seminar in New York, and I get an email that I saw during one of the breaks. It says, "Hey, can you read this chapter and just let me know if you see anything in it that you remember differently? Or if I'm not characterising something correctly, please correct me."
So I read the first few pages, and three times he mentioned in a description of me or in describing an action that I am a pretty large person. I'm 6'4", about 240 pounds. I played football in college. And he makes this point in three different ways in the first three pages. All of a sudden I started getting this feeling of, why is he harping on my size? Once seems like enough, right?
James Blatch: Yeah.
Dave Chrisinger: Well, later in the story, and this did happen, we were in a pretty freakish storm that could have totally ended the trip, but luckily, we got through it. In part of the ordeal, the water was rising up so fast that it was coming close to our canoe, which had like 500 pounds of gear in it. We had dragged it so far up the beach that we thought, "We don't need to tie this off. It's fine." And the water's getting closer to the canoe, and so I grabbed the canoe and dragged it up this hill.
When I talked to him, I said, "Brian, why are you making these cracks about my weight?" He goes, "Well, if I didn't put the image in the reader's mind that you're a big, strong guy, I don't think anyone would've believed that you dragged that canoe up the hill, so I had to build it into the way I described you."
Those are the kinds of decisions I think we have to make, whether it's nonfiction or a novelist, is how do I create a scene in which it's surprising, but also a little bit inevitable; it makes sense, but in a surprising way.
That's what he was trying to do in that chapter, and I had a newfound appreciation for giving the reader the information they need in order to form their own conclusion. In the scene where I pull the canoe up, he doesn't say, "Dave pulled the canoe up. Good thing he is a 6'4", 240-pound former college football player. Otherwise, this would be totally unbelievable." That's not in the text, but I haven't talked to anyone who doubted that claim.
James Blatch: So it's done subtly, done correctly, because I guess there's foreshadowing and sometimes you can be a little bit too clever with your foreshadowing, but it's important, obviously, to have the right things in the reader's mind, the right image for a scene to work later. So it's having that balance, I guess.
It's tricky, isn't it, all this writing stuff?
Dave Chrisinger: It is. I think, at least what's been very helpful for me over the course of my professional writing career, is really learning the thinking behind different kinds of stories. That doesn't mean that I always think, "Oh, that's a smart way to tell a story" or "Oh, I could never deviate from the dramatic arc structure," or whatever. But just understanding the thought process and the justifications for making certain decisions in a story, I'm totally fascinated by those.
I'll give you an example. If a student has a story where this might seem to make sense, I'll give this as a suggestion. Imagine you have, let's say, a personal essay, and you can break it up into five sections, just evenly distributed. You can tell that story sequentially, one, two, three, four five, or you could try four, one, two, three, five, where you have this action scene and you're throwing the reader into it.
They're not really sure what's happening, but it's compelling enough that now you've got them hooked, they want to see what happens next, and now you zoom out and you build up to that moment and you say, "Three days before..." But if you started with a first line of "Three days before this really exciting thing that happens that I'm going to tell you about in 10 pages, but not right now," it just doesn't have the same effect.
Approaching that sort of discussion as, "What do you want the reader to feel?" "I want them to feel hooked into it." "Okay, here's a strategy you can use." "I want the reader to be surprised by a revelation in the beginning." "Okay, so should you start with that or should you end with that?" Those kinds of follow-up questions I like to really interrogate, because I think that's where these kind of decisions get made. It doesn't always work, but I think it puts you in a better place to start revising and making that effect that you're looking for.
James Blatch: Now, you mentioned memoir earlier as being one of your favourite areas, and very important to get the narrative right in that. We do get asked a lot, is memoir a commercially viable genre for people? Lots of people do have some amazing stories to tell. I don't honestly know what the answer... I know that I've read a few.
There was a spate, I think, of alcoholism. They came up with a name for the subgenre of this, grit lit or something. And they're all quite gripping, reading about the extraordinary lives people have had. Sometimes the first 20 years of their life, they experienced more than we'd ever do in a lifetime. I think I read that, along with other people, trying to find answers about everything.
But I don't really know how successful memoir can be and what the right approach is to it. Is this something you think about, as well as how to write it, how to be successful with it?
Dave Chrisinger: For sure. Actually, it's a good story about my book which just came out, Stories Are What Save Us, because that book is, I call it part memoir, part writing instruction book, and a teacher's handbook. So whether you're trying to tell your own story, or you are trying to help someone else tell their story, or you're interested in other people's stories, there's a little bit in there for everything.
In the memoir parts, I tell stories about the lessons that I've learned. It's not "Here's Dave Chrisinger's life. Isn't it interesting?" It's "Here are all the ways that Dave Chrisinger has made mistakes and learned from them along the way, and here's a way for you to learn from those mistakes without having to make them like he did."
To me, those are the kinds of memoirs that can be more, at least in my experience, can be more commercially viable because the focus isn't on yourself as the subject; it's on helping people in some way through the use of your story. Those are the kind of memoirs, I think, that get a lot of attention, whether they have to do with living with mental illness or living with addiction, living with abusive spouses, losing a child, having to take care of your parents.
There's all these kinds of big life events that most of us will experience. When they happen to us, it's the first time, and it can feel like no one else in the world has ever had to deal with this. Those kind of memoirs are the stories that comfort the disturbed. They say, "Hey, you're dealing with this, and it sucks. But I dealt with it too, and here's my story."
Now, those can go farther down the spectrum into literal self-help books of step one, step two, step three. I'm less interested in those kind of books. I like the stories. I like to be able to reach a conclusion on my own in a memoir. I like to finish a memoir and say... Well, I'll give you an example. I was a big fan of Bryan Cranston, the actor.
James Blatch: Yeah, fantastic.
Dave Chrisinger: I was in the airport a few years ago, and I didn't have anything to read. I saw he had written a memoir, and I thought, oh, this... It was when Breaking Bad was at its height, I think. And I bought it and I loved... I read it just on the plane ride. I sat down and finished it.
He structures it by the different parts that he's played in his career, so every chapter is a different part and he tells the story of how he learned to embody that role and what it taught him about himself. I learned things about him that I didn't know that I found incredibly interesting that seemed to help make sense of what I saw him do on the screen, but also helped me think about times in my life differently. Again, I think that's the best a memoir can really hope to achieve.
Then you get the kinds of "I'm rich, I'm famous for whatever reason, and I have a crazy life, and you can be a voyeur and read my book." Those don't tend, at least in my experience, don't tend to be that interesting, and they don't tend to stick around. But then you can have books like Andre Agassi's autobiography is phenomenal-
James Blatch: I swear, it's one of the best nonfiction books I've read in my life. From the first page, you're like-
Dave Chrisinger: Yes. If you said, "Name your favourite memoirs," and someone said, "Andre Agassi," there would probably be these glassy looks, but it's an incredible book because, again, he does that. He helps you understand your life better by being an example.
I'm not famous enough to write a memoir for people to buy and just read because I'm so interesting, and so I have to figure out how to tell stories in a way that helps the reader in some way. So that's how I differentiate what are memoirs that I think publishers are more interested in. They're more interested in those. What can your story help other people learn or understand?
But again, you get those memoirs where it's 200 pages of everything that was bad that ever happened to them and then 10 pages of, "And then I started meditating and I took some yoga classes, and now I'm better." If I was the editor, I would say, "We don't need that. What the reader wants to see is what finally got you to do something different. What was the thing that made you pick path B instead of path A? That's the moment that the reader is hungry for, not are you better now?
Yes, that's important and interesting, but don't just tack it on the end. Help us feel it throughout, so that when we get to that moment of have to choose path A or path B, and you choose B, we think, 'Of course, because they had this experience and that experience, and that helped them better understand this, and that helped them better understand that.'" That's a good memoir, I think.
James Blatch: That's quite a challenge for people because they might think that they can write a memoir without digging too deep or giving too much away. But I'm getting the feeling from you, you do have to dig deep and you do have to give stuff away.
Dave Chrisinger: Yeah. I think Vivian Gornick said this best where she said, "Every story has a situation and a story." The way she did differentiates it is the situation is things that happened. This happened, that happened, and that happened. It's a timeline. The story is what you can sum up that story in a word or a phrase. This is a story about betrayal. This is a story about redemption. This is a story about love. This is a story about hopelessness.
Even if you have never directly experienced the thing that you're reading about, whether it is combat or Hogwarts, you can get into the story because there's that universal human story at the root of it. Harry Potter is a story about a wizard, but it's really a coming-of-age story. It's about accepting a responsibility that's been foisted on you. That's a universal human experience.
When I work with military veterans or war refugees, I say, "There are not a lot of people who know what it's like to experience what you experienced, but they do know what it feels like to be betrayed or to feel like they're less than, or feel like they let somebody down, or whatever the thing is that underpins your story." That's definitely something a reader can understand and can empathise with, so that's where I really try to direct my writers, is to think about the... What's the right way to phrase it? To think about that thing that you can sum up in a word or two.
James Blatch: Yeah. So interesting. It's so important in making stories. It does apply to both memoir and fiction and everything else. In fact, I've just finished watching Squid Game on Netflix. I don't know if you've seen it yet. Everyone's watching it.
Dave Chrisinger: No, not yet.
James Blatch: It's Korean, slightly unusual series, very violent, set in a game show. I've just noticed on Facebook... I've posted it because I really enjoyed it, and lots of people have commented on it. A few people are saying, "I'm scared." They're halfway through. "I'm scared this is going to be Lost."
What they mean by that is a series that doesn't have what you've just talked about. I think Lost is an example of a series that doesn't go anywhere, doesn't deliver that, doesn't ultimately satisfy our human quest for those answers. That's my personal opinion. I think other people seem to agree with that.
Funnily enough, Squid Game, despite being very out there and quirky, really does deliver that in the end, surprisingly so, about that theme, that one word you can say. I'm not going to give it away, if people want to watch it. It's very violent, by the way. If you're going to start watching it, be warned.
Dave Chrisinger: I'm just going to test out a theory that I have. In the storytelling structure of that show, does it feel like man against whatever, or is it more community focused and maybe less agency, like things happen to people, it's not always their call? Do you get a sense for the worldview inside the storytelling?
James Blatch: Yeah, you do. It's man against, definitely. You're seeing it through one or two eyes, one in particular, in a desperate struggle to stay alive, but then... I don't want to give spoilers away, but in the last couple of episodes, it's a bit like somebody coming back from something that's changed them. And it's not just dealt with quickly. It is a surprising twist, and it's an important part of that story. I'm being cryptic because I think it's a good series, and I don't want people to spoil it for you.
Dave Chrisinger: Well, to connect these threads, the reason I asked is at the Harris School, where I teach, we have lots of international students and we have lots of students from China, India, different places where it is less common for people to say, "This is my idea. Here's what I think you should do." It's a much more deferential tone or a more group identity. So it's uncomfortable for them when I tell them that they have to write a policy recommendation because they're like, "Well, I'm nobody. Why should I be the one?"
I've read literary analysis of Chinese and Japanese and Korean novels where they talk about sometimes they get reviewed very poorly in the West because they don't seem to have a narrative arc or they don't have a single protagonist that the viewer or the reader can identify with, and they don't have an antagonist that they could rally against. It pokes holes in the standard Western dramatisation structure.
As you were describing it, I think, "Oh, I wonder now if the producers of that show were like, 'Hey, we want this to be big in the Western world, and so we have to do this, this, and this to make it a little bit more individual, a little bit more agency, a little bit more control.'"
Whereas Lost, I watched it in the beginning. I didn't watch it all the way through. I had roommates that were really into it. So tell me if this is totally wrong. But is that what maybe fizzled, was that there wasn't this true arc, and because it was all the people together experiencing something that they didn't cause, that that's just not a structure that most Western viewers are comfortable with? It feels very unfulfilling. That's my theory, anyway.
James Blatch: No, I think that's right. I think with Lost, there were arcs for a few episodes, but there wasn't that overall change or struggle. And I think why Squid Game has perhaps stuck with me is because it feels through the first third, maybe in the middle even, that it is going to be like that. It does feel like you are just watching this thing unfold.
Each game is played slightly differently, and then it's very surprising the last third. So maybe they brought somebody in, but there's also quite a heavy, I think, Korean hangover from the war going on there, a bit like a post-apocalyptic-type themed Japanese literature, which dominated for a few decades. Anyway, very interesting. But again, warning, it's not for the... Don't watch it when you're eating. It's not for the faint of heart.
One final question for you is that you mentioned the military just then, and I know you mentioned in your notes to me before that you do some work in connecting people with the military or making people with a military background feel part of a wider community. Can you just talk to us about that?
Dave Chrisinger: Sure. I started teaching a course at a university that was designed... It was a small part of a bigger programme at the school that was designed to help freshman students, our first-year students, feel more connected to the campus. There was an issue on campus where the dropout rate was quite high. The number of people who left after one semester was unacceptable.
Part of the thinking of the cause of that was that people didn't feel any connection to the campus, and so it was easy to leave. They found that student veterans, the students who had served in the military but were now out, had an especially high dropout rate. So the class that I created as part of this programme was designed to build a cohort model of student veterans on campus and help them get connected to each other, help them get connected to resources on campus, smooth that transition.
What it really turned into was a storytelling class. They all very instinctively used their stories to connect with each other and to also create an in-group of like, "We are here, and people outside of this place are not with us." There was a little bit of defensiveness, sometimes frustration with being misunderstood, the different kinds of stereotypes. At least in the United States, there were lots of media stereotypes, or media generated, of you're either a hero or a monster, or the ticking-time-bomb military veteran, that it's just a matter of time before they lose it.
So what I did in that class was I challenged them and I said, "Well, if that's not true, then write stories that show the opposite. Show me the stories of who you are." Those essays became an edited collection that we published under the title See Me for Who I Am. The point of the book was to show that military veterans are not monolithic. They're not homogenous. They've had varied experiences. They're unique, as any other people. Yes, they've had different experiences, but like we talked about earlier, there's universal human emotions attached to those experiences.
That was really the proof of concept for me of helping people create a coherent story that helps them make sense of their life can have a really powerful impact, not just on themselves, but their ability to connect and understand other people, and be understood by other people.
When I see stories about polarisation and about conflict and everything else, I have to wonder how much is just because of that, this idea that "I'm not understood. I can't understand them. They don't want to connect with me. I don't want to connect with them." What can break that down? Stories can do that. I've seen it happen.
James Blatch: Incredibly powerful, really good work. I'm reminded to think of James Rosone, one of our writers in the SPF community, who suffers from PTSD from his military service, and writing was prescribed to him and is now his full-time job. He is very good at it, but a very important part of his process of recovery.
And Jeffrey Frye, who's come out of prison and is using writing to get himself back on the road. You can't underestimate the importance of that, of exploring the human condition one way or the other to help us understand it. It's been a really gripping and fascinating conversation, Dave. Thank you so much, indeed.
Dave Chrisinger: Yes. Thank you so much for having me. My pleasure.
James Blatch: It's been great. Is there anywhere you would like to send people to learn a little bit more about some of the things we've talked about?
Dave Chrisinger: You can always check out my personal author website. It's David Chrisinger, it's Chris and then -inger, like Kissinger, .com. I have a newsletter. You can get information about when new articles come out or new books are hitting the shelves. I'm active on social media in the sense that I have social media and occasionally check it, so that's probably not the greatest place to reach out. But there's a contact form on my website as well, and you can find whatever you need there.
James Blatch: There you go. Very interesting guy. Dave does really good work with some veterans and has an interesting take on everything.
In a former life, I mentioned this, I think, in the interview, I used to freelance, and one of the jobs which I did, and I absolutely hated this particular aspect of it, working for a big advertising PR agency in London, one of the biggest in the world, actually, and occasionally they asked you to talk to people, to give talks, because they somehow thought we were magic, what we did, the videos we produced.
I developed this talk on a story, and I used to do this little gimmick at the beginning, I should reinstate this somewhere, where I tell people about the guy who invented washing hands in the 18th century. His name is Ignaz Semmelweis. I tell people that at the beginning, and they're looking a bit bewildered. Then I give my presentation, and then I say at the end, "Right," and I pick somebody. I say, "Who remembers what I told you at the beginning?" They all look slightly bewildered, and somebody puts their hand up and they guess, "Something to do with hospitals or something like that?"
I said, "Okay, so I told you the bare facts of what this guy has done. Now let me tell you a story," and I spend 10 minutes telling the incredible story of this guy, Ignaz Semmelweis. And at the end of that, everyone in that room is going to remember that story and the history of why we wash our hands today and the incredible development that guy made, which is a story for another day. But it just goes to show, it doesn't matter whether you are selling a packet of crisps or writing a novel, you need to understand intrinsically what a story is and the power of it.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, absolutely. It's well-known as an excellent way to get information across. So yeah, it's an interesting subject. We should probably think about that more often when we're delivering webinars and things and when we're teaching, is to... I always try and wrap it up, in terms of the story, in how things have... I hate I'm going to have to use the J word because I'm too tired in the morning to think about anything else, but my journey as an author. God, I feel terrible now. I need to shower.
It's quite useful to hang the information that you want off that because you can see tangible results in the befores and afters and all that kind of stuff. It is well-known to be an effective learning mechanism, that we can probably all do that a little bit more.
James Blatch: Yeah, absolutely. And we are all writing our own stories. We're the only people who see our story from beginning to end, aren't we?
Mark Dawson: I suppose we are. Yeah.
James Blatch: Other people see chapters from it, but we are the only ones, so we are writing a story for ourselves.
Mark Dawson: God, that's deep.
James Blatch: Too much for a birthday. Okay, you go off and have cake or beer, whatever it is you're going to have. Do not get COVID-
Mark Dawson: Cake and beer.
James Blatch: ... this week.
Mark Dawson: No. I'm not going to be doing very much apart from staying in this room writing, so yeah, I won't be meeting many people.
James Blatch: I'm desperate to go to the IMAX and watch Dune this week, but I'm slightly nervous about it.
Mark Dawson: My brother said it was excellent.
James Blatch: I tell you what, let's see if there's an... Is there an IMAX in Vegas?
Mark Dawson: I'm fairly confident.
James Blatch: I'm going to guess there might be an IMAX in Vegas. That could be little boys night out.
Mark Dawson: Yes, absolutely.
James Blatch: ... if we've got time, go see and Dune. Okay, great. Thank you very much indeed to our guest, Dave Chrisinger.
Mark Dawson: Dave Chrisinger.
James Blatch: Yes, Dave. I was going to say Chris Davinger.
Mark Dawson: After I told you a story about Dave, you wouldn't have forgotten.
James Blatch: I know. He told me it rhymes with Kissinger, his name. I know how to pronounce it.
Mark Dawson: I'm thinking of Christendom, actually. But yes, Kissinger.
James Blatch: There you go, the most famous story of all. But there you go. At least, in the Western world. It's getting deep again, isn't it? It is Sunday.
Thank you very much indeed to you for listening. We will be back next week. All that remains for me to say is it's a goodbye from him-
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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