Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing Lessons from the Grand Canyon

Once upon a time, a man who now is a naturalist at the Grand Canyon was a nine-year-old boy. He was fascinated by bugs and rocks but not too interested in sports. His parents, however, had been schooled by his older, athletic brother and therefore insisted that the awkward, recalcitrant boy join the local baseball team.

The boy did as he was told, and immediately the other kids stuck him in right field where, as they put it, "he couldn't do any harm." In fact, they even said to him, "don't catch the ball if it comes your way," because they didn't want him messing things up. So he sat on the grass and looked at the bugs and rocks.

My husband told me this story, which is true, when we were walking along the top of the Grand Canyon recently. We were there on a family holiday — seeking canyons of every description, from Grand to Bryce to Zion. (Of course I must confess that along the way we also saw the first wonder of the unnatural world, Las Vegas.)

Anyway, my husband heard the story from the naturalist himself, during an evening lecture. I was initially impressed because many public speakers don't understand that telling stories — particularly stories on themselves — is one of the best ways to communicate facts. "So what was the point he was trying to make?" I asked.

"I dunno," my husband replied glumly. "The guy was a bit of a nerd." Coming from my husband, who has a degree in zoology (so is favorably predisposed towards naturalists) and who almost never says anything mean about anyone, well, that was a serious blow! But was also a good reminder to writers everywhere:

Yes, tell stories. Tell lots of them. But always make sure they have a point. A story on its own is never enough — it needs to drive the reader/listener somewhere specific.

Ironically, a few days later, I came across a perfectly calibrated story that illustrates the same point — only from a do-it-this-way perspective. On the plane ride home I was reading in the June issue of the Atlantic a terrific article headlined "What Makes us Happy?" It was about the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

For some 72 years this study has followed 268 men who entered Harvard in the 1930s looking at their careers, marriages, divorces and old age. It's one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Psychiatrist George Vaillant has been chief investigator for the last 42 years and this article focuses on his findings and his own life.

As part of the latter effort, the article included the following anecdote: "Vaillant says his hopeful temperament is best summed up by the story of a father who on Christmas Eve puts into one son's stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son's, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, 'Dad, I just don't know what I'll do with this watch. It's so fragile. It could break.' The other boy runs to him and says, 'Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!' "

I love that story, not just because it's amusing but also because it seems to capture something both important and ineffable about the subject of the article. It's so much more than just a joke.

In the words of American poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser, "The world is not made up of atoms; it's made up of stories."

Find them and use them wisely.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 8th 2009, 10:01 AM
Comment by: John P. (Sausalito, CA)
An excellent article, Daphne. I appreciate the story and the point.
Wednesday July 8th 2009, 3:14 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Smiling still at the way BB was defeated, and the study of bugs and rocks continued.

I guess it was just too obvious to your husband, Daphne!
Wednesday July 8th 2009, 3:37 PM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
"Yes, tell stories. Tell lots of them. But always make sure they have a point."

That is excellent advice! I have attended far too many leadership/career panels in which the speakers on the panel would give a lot of advice but never put it into context by explaining it with a story. Telling a story well is a great way to make a point.
Thursday July 9th 2009, 12:06 AM
Comment by: Mary H. (Youngstown, OH)
Good article,I love stories especially those that come from little children, sometimes the point eludes them, but most of the time they hit right on the nail.
Sunday July 12th 2009, 7:42 AM
Comment by: B. E. C. (DeRidder, LA)
“Yes, tell stories. Tell lots of them but always make sure they have a point.”

Provides me a brilliant bit of light I will use as I learn, and stumble my way down the dark road leading to writing meaningful short essays and stories at age 72. Thank you.
Tuesday August 25th 2009, 9:10 PM
Comment by: Anonymous
"Yes, stories should be shared, but it should be as simple as possible, to make it "get the meaning and purpose".
Thursday October 1st 2009, 10:45 AM
Comment by: manuela B. (chicago, IL)
I tremendously enjoy this website(I could not think of a better word,now).I place the daily "word" and the
following stories because I love the WORD and I like to write.So,I accumulate everything by switchiong to
"drafts".Later(.I haven't done it yet),I 'll write everything on my list of words. I'll use them when they belong
in a story.
Since it will be quite an arduous task and I am not a "specialist" in computers, can anybody help by telling
me the fastest way to do it.
I cannot afford to lose "the words and the stories" and I must leave room for the new ones,coming daily.
I will be very GRATEFUL.

Manuela

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