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  • Reverend James Squire

Tell Your Story



Photo by Brett Jordan

 

Happy New Year!

 

I read an interesting article in the Washington Post, Who had 2023’s most engaging stories? by Paul Farhi. The answer was eye opening and I should have known better what the answer  would be for I heard it from someone who was one of my mentors when I started writing books. I was already doing it as well as when I was preaching to students or teaching in a classroom. Getting students to remember what you said is a real test.

 

“The most engaging journalist in the English-speaking world is a 29 years old reporter who lives in London and works at CNN.Com. Francesca Street’s stories attract millions of readers. More important, millions of readers keep reading the stories once they’ve started.”

 

“The most objective label isn’t a subjective assessment. Chartbeat, a company that registers digital readerships, keeps track how much time readers spend on a particular story and recently surveyed 39 million stories published by roughly 10,000 websites ranked the most engaging reads of 2023.”

 

Street won hands down. Why? Because she doesn’t write stories that you read a paragraph, get the idea, and move on. It is because Street writes about peoples’ stories where people can see themselves in the stories. Publishers covet “engagement” from readers for it is good for their advertisers. There is that money thing again in ethics. One of her top stories was about a couple who met on a plane to London who were assigned the last seats on the plane. Except he’s British and she’s American, with work and family commitments on two continents. Will it work out? (Yes, of course it will.)

 

When I retired, I began writing, something I never had to time to do while running EA’s version of the ER with only dealing with the needs of people who required help who were right in front of me. So, I sent one of my manuscripts to Dr. Marty Seligman, Founder of Positive Psychology and the Positive Psychology Center at Penn, and a prolific author. His initial response was, “Jim, I am not going to write a review for everybody wants me to do that.” I told him that wasn’t the reason for me wanting feedback on the manuscript. I wanted his feedback on what I can do better. I didn’t hear back from him for a while, and I forgot about sending him the manuscript. Then I received a brief email from him, paraphrased, “Jim, you are an academic. You know people and relationships and what makes people tick. People want to hear what makes you tick. You have a story to tell. It’s unique. Tell your story. That’s what people want to hear.”

 

I have been using James Carville’s classic line about the Bill Clinton Campaign and what should be a priority a lot recently, “It’s the economy, stupid.” I would say regarding this blog, “It’s the story, stupid! Marty’s counsel yielded my memoir, The Times of My Life.

 

Stories of peoples’ lives connect us and keep our interest. But I need more. I also only read what I know that I can use to help others. I also love to read a book that I am consistently feeling, “I never knew that.”

 

I saw the power of story in the movie, Maestro, the life of the famous composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. It had all the ingredients including “I never knew that,” as well as being a powerful story not so much about music and composing. It was a story that explores the relationship of Bernstein with his wife and what made him tick. It was about family life and most of us could see our limitations as people sometimes referred to as the story behind the story. Even though he was bisexual, his wife accepts him for who he is, and he loves her deeply to the end and extends that love to his daughter whose book about him expresses that so clearly.

 

But there is something else. A story has power only if you remember it.  I tend not to remember things in a speech or sermon unless it has a gimmick or metaphor, as Gypsy Rose Lee, of all people sung in the musical about her, “You gotta have a gimmick,” something the listener can hold on to with their heart and mind so that is what I have always done. Otherwise, it is just thoughts, words, and ideas that don’t connect with me and run together.

 

It was the thing that was remembered by students when preaching to kids for 38 years. Over the years I heard a few words that meant a great deal to me. I would be with alumni and hear someone say, “Remember when you talked about…”

 

Students are people of the story and they periodically asked me to tell them a story about my life for the first few minutes of class. Tell us a story seems crazy when you are hearing the request from a huge lineman on the football team. They are interested in the connection and they don’t forget. We want to learn about other people. We all have a story to tell.

 

Those of us who are parents or if you can remember back to your childhood when you asked your father or mother to read you a story usually before bed, understand the importance of a story. Most of us have heard our children say, “Tell it again” and they would repeat that request. Children got the content the first time around, but the repeated request made their day for it impacted them in their psyche and soul.

 

I had The Little Engine That Could memorized early on as I read and re-read it to my oldest son.

You know the line, “I think I can! I think I can! I think I can” and the train makes it over the mountain after the struggle to the top.

 

When I was living in Swarthmore, our home was on steep North Chester Road. He was riding a three-wheeler bike one day up that hill, and I was walking behind him. He lifted off the bike almost standing to add weight on the peddles, and then I heard it getting louder and louder through his gritted teeth, “I think I can! I think I can! I think I can!”

 

I was reprimanded in a class on homiletics (preaching) when I was at Berkeley at Yale by   Professor Dr. Percy Urban, who thought I used too many metaphors. “They are going to get you in trouble, Mr. Squire.” I decided to go with Gypsy Rose Lee’s “You gotta have a gimmick” and I haven’t looked back. Dr. Urban was the father of Dr. Linwood Urban, who was Head of the Religion Department at Swarthmore, whose son, David, was a student at EA. It is because of them that I knew about the position of Chaplain at EA. My relationship with those three is one of my stories. Dr. Urban repeatedly pushed me to apply for that position.

 

Stories are at the heart of the spiritual life. Your job as Marty Seligman said to me, “Tell your story!” I would add, “Take enough interest in people to care about the back stories of others.” It enriches your life!

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