Monday, December 6, 2010

Story is a matter of organization

A couple of days ago, I was responsible for teaching a lesson on "Genomic Approaches to Multifactorial Disease" to a class of college juniors. It was a topic that I knew very little about, considering my thesis was about arsenic contamination in Bangladesh.

As the cherry on top, none of my co-workers in lab really knew much about "Genomic Approaches to Multifactorial Disease" either--and they all happened to be very busy last week, so they probably couldn't have helped me even if they did--so I ended up giving a practice lesson to my friend T, who is a fellow writer, not a scientist.

So, there T and I are, practicing in my office, and I'm throwing out scientific terms and diagrams and methods of statistical analysis, when he raises his hand and says, "I think you should show and not tell."

It took me a second to understand where he was going with this, but then I figured it out.

See, I had been giving a general outline of genomic approaches to multifactorial diseases to him without getting to an actual example, like the study of high blood pressure, and he said that, for him, the example would make everything clearer.

The whole experience reminded me that almost every message we communicate to someone else can be organized in the form of a story...and techniques that we use to tell an exciting story can also be applied to any messages to make them more exciting.

When the time came for me to give my actual lesson, I organized each part of my lecture to come out like a story, setting up a question in the beginning, going through the thought process of how to solve that question, and then building to the climax where the question was answered. It made for an engaging discussion, and I had multiple students come up to me after the lecture to say how interesting my talk was.

This has all reminded me that the skills we learn as story tellers can be applied to so many things outside of our fiction writing. I think I seem to be a more interesting person in general because I've learned to share details about my life more in a story form. It's a matter of organization, setting things up so that there's a beginning, middle, and end. It's a nice tool to carry in our back pocket for anytime we need it.

And! It's December 6, just a few days before all of our Notes From Underground stories are due! I'm excited to see what we end up with. Already, we've gotten some great stories, and I can't wait to get them published and available for readers!


  1. Maybe that's why I've loved teaching so much and why I've gotten pretty good feedback when I've had opportunities. I never really thought about the cross-over there, but as I think about it, you're dead-on. I love it when I get insights into something I've been experiencing without quite knowing it.

    Thanks, Domey!

  2. I wish more of my science profs had taken that approach. I probably would have liked the classes more. I love this idea. I'm going to have to keep it in mind when I have to teach classes.

  3. Nevets, Glad this was helpful. I've always had to work hard to teach well. It's not a skill that comes naturally to me, but I like it and I'm trying to be good at it!

    Lois, isn't it amazing what a good professor can do to a lesson. I can still look back and remember vividly all of the great teachers in my life.

  4. I'm excited for the Notes From the Underground book! Even though I'm not in it, I think I might buy a copy to support you guys. I'll definitely be participating in the contest again next year!

  5. Aimee, that's great that you're excited about it. We are too! The money will be donated to a writing non-profit, so you'll also be helping out in that way too!

  6. "almost every message we communicate to someone else can be organized in the form of a story"

    Completely agree.

  7. Wow! I never thought of it this way, Davin, but it's very cool. I live with an actor, so he's always telling stories in a very engaging way, haha.

  8. Last week I had to make some spontaneous comments at a going-away event at the office, and I sort of naturally made my comments in the form of a story. I didn't even really think about it at the time. But using a story form really helps to organize my thoughts. Though you have to know how to tell a story first, how to craft a dramatic arc and all that.

  9. There's a theory that storytelling was evolutionarily advantageous because it allows us to remember lessons about life. Of course, most of those lessons are about how to interact with other people and our own emotions, or at least that's how we use stories now, but maybe, long ago, more stories were focused on pragmatic things, like where to find mammoths and how to kill them. Who knows.

  10. Wow, that was a mouthful Domey.

    I'm so glad the lecture was a success. Although, I have to say that my statistics professor probably overwhelmed us (me anyway) with "show" graphs and figures and such.

    But I think you're right about how often our story telling skills help in daily life.

    Thanks for the insights.


  11. Very cool lesson you learned there, my friend. And I thought you would have heard that before. hehe

    This is the same principal as writing our stories and then believing we have written the BEST thing our eyes have ever seen only to have it pulverized by betas and critique partners.Telling us SHOWY NO TELLY. :)

    In this case you were trying too hard?


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