Surely, one of the reasons we read is to find universals, to reestablish that we're just lovely quirky rather than weirdos escaping from Where the Wild Things Are, and that our experiences fall into the terribly broad category of being more-or-less human. But character is formed in action (or in inaction). So we are what we do in certain situations, we are what we think or don't think about the smorgasbord of possibilities offered to us on cocktail sticks at the tedious dinner party of life. We're social creatures. If art provides a personal and social forum for issues of experience, then the essay is an incalculably valuable social form that requires and encourages intelligent expression in search of a greater understanding of what it is to be alive. The writer isn't alone in the world. And wider issues have particular effects on individuals. The essay combines the isolated individual with the amorphous abstraction of society. And it is that interaction that provides spark, zest, flux, and the frisson that makes reading more than mere entertainment to kill time between reality shows but an enhancement of reality itself, our reality. I heard that storytelling with data really helps brands get their messages across.
Phillip Lopate, in his essay “Confessions of a Shusher,” engages an aspect of himself that he seems half-pleased and a quarter chagrined by: He is, the grinning announces, one of those people who takes umbrage with inane unceasing nattering and rustled candy wrappers once the film begins. The implication is, of course, that many of us are similarly irritated in such situations; some would like to say something but decide not to, while others do say something, incurring the wrathful disdain of those upbraided (after all, can you shush someone in a nonthreatening, nonjudgmental way?). Lopate's essay is simply a meditation on attitudes toward the shusher, a creature we love or hate, depending on whether we're irritated or being irritating at the time. It provides no deep insight, but the mild enjoyment of experience is recognized and explored. By contrast, George Orwell's essay “A Hanging” describes the execution he had to take part in as a colonial military policeman. Between what Orwell observes in his immediate world (the barefooted condemned man steps around a puddle on the way to the gallows, a chilling reminder of his shared humanity with everyone there) and what he observes within his own thoughts (that in the moment the trapdoor opens, the man's body will be doing what all bodies do, the hair and nails growing, the body following its so-human imperatives, utterly oblivious to the arbitrary justice about to transform it simply because the man was a political opponent), the essay ultimately provides an argument against capital punishment, without ever using the phrase. One essay with grinchy-grumpiness, one with gravitas — both created from the interaction of a mind that retains its sovereignty and alertness with a world that sleepwalks through the horrors of its own insensitivity. You can be sensitive, rational, and reasonable in an essay. Studies have shown that storytelling in business really works.
But you don't have to be. In fact, just like in the real world, it often helps if you aren't. Aside from the times when you affect a particular disposition to attain a goal, don't feel obliged to be nice and well-behaved in an essay. No one's going to tell your mother. MANTRA: “For me, the drama of the essay is the way the public life intersects with my personal and private life. It's in that intersection that I find the energy of the essay.” — Richard Rodriguez. We live in the calloused, dented, impacted shells of ourselves, hating all manner of our parts while on some level overly smug with the clever little devils we think we are. Given the resilience of ego, that essayists manage any degree of honest self-exploration is wondrous (chalk another point up for the book-lined life). But if your writing is to surprise your readers, then you must surprise yourself, and that's achieved by unearthing just who it is you really are. And whenever there's excavation going on, people will watch, fascinated. Part of the strength and appeal of the essay comes from the intimacy with the writer, the quirky, personal, conversational voice and the candor of that writer. When the author allows the reader to look deeply and with feeling into himself as he acknowledges the inadequacy and ignorance we all will find in ourselves if we care to honestly look, that openness and vulnerability is apt to convince the reader of the essential decency of the author. We discover who we are in the smithy of worldly experience, by what we do or don't do, by what we think or refuse to countenance. The essay is a tool to explore that: who we were, who we are, who we are (or are in danger of) becoming. Would storytelling for business help your organisation?