Panelists discuss the art of storytelling

By Emilie Shumway

The function of the story and the future of this medium were two key ideas examined during a round table discussion on Friday at Cobb Hall, as part of the two-day symposium “The Role of Story in the Creative Arts.”

The discussion featured author Sven Birkerts, a cultural critic and Briggs Copeland lecturer at Harvard University; Tina Mion, an Arizona-based painter who will be featured at the Smithsonian; Daniel Mendelsohn, whose book Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million recently won a National Book Critics Circle Award and a National Jewish Book Award; and poetry author Carla Harryman, who teaches at Wayne State University, Naropa Institute, and Bard College Milton Avery School of the Arts. Mark Slouka, the University’s current chair of Creative Writing, moderated the discussion.

The panelists agreed that the role of the story is to establish meaning in one’s life. Mendelsohn described the process of storytelling as an “uncovering” of something buried, which at the end reveals an answer to an inquiry. Mion, describing her method of painting, said, “For me, I think the motivation is a question.” She additionally described the importance of differing views of interpretation, saying she enjoys it when people find meanings in her work that she had not intended.

Exploring the notion that fiction is a method of communication that distorts reality, Birkerts said fiction makes drama more archetypal and therefore more “true” to a society.

Expanding on the role of truth, the panelists briefly discussed the controversy surrounding James Frey and his 2003 book A Million Little Pieces. As for the people who claimed not to care about the book’s autobiographical authenticity, Mendelsohn described them as exemplars of the human need for a redemptive story, regardless of its validity.

The discussion of the role of television and its potential as a storytelling device drew opposing views. Some panelists accepted the idea that the written word will become obsolete, while others disagreed.

Defending television, Mendelsohn decried the assumption that stories are only valid if they are written, describing a natural evolution of the modes of communication.

Mion and Harryman were cautious to endorse television as an acceptable method of communicating stories. Mion, who claimed not to have owned a television since she was 18, said that the fundamental difference was silence. When reading, “I can stop and think about what’s going on,” she said.