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#146 – The Most Important Question You Can Ask of Your Stories Right Now
Moving beyond 'why' in storytelling
This is Adventures in Storytelling your weekly note with resources, insights, and actionable tools for better communication through storytelling. Enjoy. Don’t get me started on last week, just know there is EXCELLENT reason why I had to miss posting. I hope this one makes up for it—I really enjoy it.
I am done with the question, “why?” in my storytelling. At least for now. At least for the next little bit. As islands burn, war rages, and capitalism continues to destroy in its insidious ways both our perspective and efforts for change, I am going to let go of why as I explore stories. Not because “why” isn’t a powerful and sometimes essential question. I’ve written before about how valuable a question it can be when living a life of curiosity and storytelling. I’ve said and still believe, “The most powerful question any of us can ask of ourselves and our stories is “why?”
But now does not feel like a time for why.
While why gets us to Purpose and perhaps deeper understanding, while it guides us to explore meaning, and while it can guide our creative effort, why is also difficult. An unruly question to ask of complex times. So instead, I’ve begun to ask how.
Toni Morrison, a teacher to me in so many ways including this one, puts it most succinctly at the beginning of The Bluest Eye. “There really is nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” She then proceeds to tell a story of how. Complex and beautiful, but less grueling to unpack. Sometimes we can’t get to the answers of why, but we can certainly explore how.
And in that exploration, we free ourselves of having to have the answers or having to fix problems we did not create and do not have the capacity to even begin to contend with. But how can get us to a place of contending with the things we can. This is tied in a lot of ways to my efforts around the idea of acceptance as a storytelling skill. If we accept that why is not the path for us in some cases, it leaves room for the beauty and insight how can unlock. Asking how is a form of acceptance itself.
What might change if in your business story you started to bring to light the how of its origin. Not just why you did it (which is valuable for you to know certainly), but how. What changes in the telling? I started my own business because I was sick of sharing the insight I’d gained about marketing and storytelling to help great big corporations become even bigger. I wanted to help smaller businesses who the research showed struggled most with marketing their businesses and often failed because of a lack of knowledge.
How I did it is a whole other story. My business came to me, I didn’t seek it out. I was on creative sabbatical focused on writing for a year, when my first ever non-freelance client reached out to me. They were two talented guys who had started a custom suit company called Fari Hara. They’d heard about the work I do and wondered if I’d work with them to grow their marketing efforts. The suits were beautiful, and the brand had so much potential that I said yes, despite the fact that I wasn’t supposed to be focused on brand and marketing work at the time.
That first project helped me see the potential I could have, shaped my offering, and launched my business. I had good reasons for starting my business, but most people would probably never guess that I was reluctant in those early days. Hesitant and unsure but willing to try. And now I have what I consider to be the best job I’ve ever had—I made it, with the help of my clients. Why is clear, but the how adds specific, animate, detail to the story. It’s a bit more relatable.
So, if you know you’re why, I’d encourage you to think about the how of your story next. Not just why you exist, but how you came to be. It even helps with the more complex parts of life and stories. Not why did the fires in Maui start, but how can I, within my current capacity, support the efforts to make change? Not why did this thing in my career or life happen but how did I get to this place in life or career. You might find you surprise yourself with the insight you uncover and sometimes, I’m beginning to discover, you get to the why without even setting out to.
So I want you to ask yourself, how would you tell your next story differently or even one you know well, if you focused on the how instead of the why for a little while? I’d love to hear what you uncover, share your thoughts in the comments.
A Story Well Told
I’m a true believer in reading widely and often. And right now I’m back on books and fiction in a big way. I always have multiple books on the go, a mix of non-fiction and fiction. But right now I’m all about one author and the fantasy worlds she creates. Sarah J Maas is another library recommendation that has served me well. I randomly started her magic and adventure fuelled series A Court of Thorns of Roses because my local library app thought I might enjoy it. Not only did I enjoy it, I consumed all five of the current books in the series so quickly that I am now going back and reading through it again more slowly to catch the subtleties I missed in that first devouring. It’s what I need right now, a world entirely made up and fantastical. I’m going to start on her other series next but if you are at all a fan of fantasy, magic, fairies, and a bit of a romance, I’d encourage you to check this series out.
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