August 7, 2018 | Storytelling

Let Us Record the Atoms as They Fall Upon the Mind…


In 1919, Virginia Woolf published an essay originally entitled Modern Novels in which she criticized the false and perfectionist tendencies of modern storytelling.

She describes one writer, Arnold Bennett, writing,

“He can make a book so well constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can creep in. There is not so much as a draught between the frames of the windows, or a crack in the boards. And yet—if life should refuse to live there?”

As she articulates the perfected and polished nature of Mr. Bennett’s writing, she might as well be describing the essence of facts and statistics.

Both Bennett’s writing (according to Woolf, that is—we will allow you to decide for yourself) and statistics are airtight, refusing to permit anything in or out.

The comparison can only extend so far in that, where Bennett’s books supposedly fail altogether, the airtight quality of facts is actually quite beneficial to us under certain circumstances. Woolf’s criticism, however, does hold water and relevance to us in the spaces where we prematurely cast aside storytelling in favor of statistics and numbers.

Her question, “And yet—if life should refuse to live there?” resounds through the secret hallways of our minds. We should ask this question daily as we turn to the business world with all its various models of teaching, inspiring, and presenting.

For instance, take a donor who graciously gives money to a scholarship fund or an endowment. That money will grant a beneficiary a new level of freedom, opportunity, and experience they would not have had otherwise.

Reporting back to the donor should subsequently reflect this new reality; the impact story is an opportunity to exhibit in full array this flourishing of life.

The donor’s generous gift has encouraged another person to pursue and wander and learn—should not the impact report display this in a directly relevant manner as told by that beneficiary?

Facts convey hard numbers, it is true, and yet—if life should refuse to live there?

In order to breathe the life, which the donor most assuredly deserves to receive, back into the report, we must turn our attention and energy to the craft and transmission of individual stories.

Woolf goes on to write,

“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.”

The art of storytelling is found within this ability to discern beauty from seemingly incoherent patterns and to relay them as they come, as they are—without smoothing over the uncomfortable bumps, divots, and holes.

A well-conveyed impact story in the place of facts and statistics opens the doors to an entirely new level of connection between beneficiary and donor. Especially when that impact story is being told in the words, and from the perspective, of the beneficiary.

Storytelling challenges our tendency to christen the loud, impressive moments of life as the crowning junctures of significance. Rather, it takes up with humility the holistic intricacies of human life, weaving all the small moments together in an elaborate tapestry.

Woolf desires for fiction to express authenticity, regardless of the conventions it defies in the process. While there will always be a place for numbers and their respective absolutes, we cannot neglect the powerful nature of stories.

In those stories where a donor’s generosity is coupled with a beneficiary’s passions, life indeed chooses to live.

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