The Gentle Storyteller in a Violent World

Silence is sometimes preferable to unleashing emotions that are not processed or packaged for public consumption. My silence here, on this blog, has been due to a simmering bouillabaisse of anger, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. I know that I am not alone in this, nor is my angst much different by degree than anyone else’s. I’m either at the edge of tears or letting loose an inextricable profanity.

Cartoon drawing that says "WTF".

I feel frenetically angry these days, to the point that I have a Post-It note below my computer monitor: Be kind. Don’t swear. Listen. Anybody who knows me knows I love some good swearing. But since every meeting or get-together is online, it has become too easy to blur the boundaries between close friends and the board of the nonprofit for which I volunteer. All the faces are flat, the location always my study with multi-directional, disorganized anger banging around in my brain. A mistakenly uttered profanity might be quite jarring in the wrong environment.

Physically, I’m wearing each and every emotion. I wrote this little ditty in my head yesterday when wearing a baggy shirt: All this swathe of cloth, does not have the ability, to hide my rolls of fragility. Yeah, I won’t be reading an inaugural poem any time soon. I’m walking a lot, trying to get back into strength training, but I’m having a hard time making myself care. It feels like something is a little broken, like I’ve just given in to entropy.

Owl in glasses sitting on a pen.

Still, I’ve almost finished my first semester of an MFA in Creative Writing Program. I’ve learned several things. I am further along in my writing skills than I imagined. Secondly, talent doesn’t mean jack if you’re not actively writing. Thirdly, when you solidly believe that everyone around you is better than you at everything, it always comes as a surprise when you realize, Hey, I know something. This has given me some ambition to put together my own low-rent virtual workshop for the fall. 6-10 writers, nominal fee (just so people show up), and covering all the basics of good narrative.

I’ve done a couple of writing competitions, which work like tournament brackets. Thus far, I’ve been given an Honorable Mention, and I’ve just advanced another round in a short story competition. Some competitions offer critiques from judges on your piece as part of the registration fee. One of the comments struck a nerve. You’re a gentle storyteller. In any other world, not littered with my literary ambition, this would seem sweet. But it really stuck with me, because the translation at first in my overthinking noggin was “tepid, mediocre, simple”. Oh no! What happened to complex, rich literary narrative that evokes some intellectual pablum and blah, blah, blah… I’ve already written the New York Times review of my first book. And gentle storyteller does not cut it.

Book open on table in woods.

We all have ideas of who we want to be or at the very least, how we want to be perceived. I’m settling into this idea that my writing will never be edgy or evocative or prizewinning. Maybe it will just be a good story. My current novel was described by an MFA professor as character-driven and a quiet, complex story. That will make for a shelf-grabbing blurb. “Boring. TLDR” – Publishers’ Mistake Weekly. Mark this little tea cozy of a book for the remaindered bin. Still, I don’t want to tell this particular story any other way – I like complexity, nuance, subtlety and if it ends up being a bathtub read for someone, as they fall asleep and accidentally drown, well, that’s just good publicity.

As I waited for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, to see if the Twin Cities will set itself on fire, I thought about violence. About militarized police and mass shooters. As a veteran, I have enough familiarity with weapons to know that I don’t trust them and I don’t trust people who fetishize them. I do know that brandishing weapons makes people lazy. They don’t have to de-escalate, they don’t have to compromise, they don’t have to use diplomacy. They don’t need self-control or empathy or decency. Like the mafia, like gangs, like uniformed units, they conflate fear with respect and think compliance is the only way they can “win.”

Red spiral like the boring inside a gun.

There are likely few Americans who have not been touched by violence – from war, from mass shootings, from childhood traumas. I have now lived in two places where mass shootings have taken place. In 1991, at the University of Iowa, my afternoon Russian class was moved, as hours before, a man who had killed five people around campus, entered the classroom and shot himself. There have been multiple events in Minnesota since I moved here and that’s not counting the police violence. Even they are not immune. In 2015, just a few blocks away, at the city hall, a man walked in and fired upon police at a swearing-in ceremony. They were injured, he was killed. It’s everywhere. Guns are everywhere.

So, what can a gentle storyteller do? Is there a place for that kind of narrative in a world full of trauma and injustice and cruelty? I cannot watch shows or read books organized around violence. I don’t find it interesting or entertaining when it is reality for so many people. I’ve always believed that reading, getting inside a character’s head, helps grow empathy. And if there is anything missing in American life, it would be that. Throw in some critical thinking skills, less hero worship (seriously, when did politicians develop fan clubs?), more responsibility that accompanies freedom, organizing public policy around the common good, then there might be progress.

Image of Tim Kreider's book I Wrote This Book Because I Love You.

It’s a funny thing that I’m a writer, that I’m here now, writing in public. If I could have one secret power, it would be invisibility. Understatement is my brand. I’ve been reading Tim Kreider’s collection of essays, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. This excerpt sticks with me: “…if you want to enjoy the rewards of being loved, you also have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” I mean, what is writing, but a wish to be understood, to be heard, to be known and loved? People can go on and on about why they do it, but practically everything we do organizes around a basic human need to belong somewhere.

Perhaps telling tales in a mild-mannered way serves as a counterbalance to the rage. The world does not need more anger. The world needs the opportunity to see the possibilities. That this is not it. That we are capable of change. That cynicism is not intelligence. That we cannot be anything more than what we imagine. So, imagine we must. Even if it is with a light touch.

28 thoughts on “The Gentle Storyteller in a Violent World

  1. Interesting, Michelle, I was recently lamenting to my writing teacher that my essays and stories don’t seem edgy enough for today’s market. Most of the journals I look at seem to be seeking experimental works with dark overtones. I feel like Pollyanna, the storyteller. She said it’s a phase that will pass or fade, and that there are still plenty of editors who welcome essays and stories that don’t always lead down dark alleys. She reminded me to be true to my voice and not dwell on the market. The pendulum will swing back. It’s a hope I’m clinging to.
    P.S. – a “character-driven, quiet, complex story” sounds exactly like what the world needs now (at least I do).
    P.P.S – it’s good to see you again. Congrats on the MFA commitment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Donna! I think your writing teacher is exactly right. I have to remind myself that I’m writing what I want to read and to stay the course. I’m in a cohort with a lot of young genre writers, so even the feedback has to be contextualized, but it’s a good exercise in learning how to critically think about feedback. I think I’m coming to terms with the fact that I need to curb literary ambitions and just learn how to tell a satisfying story. By the way, you have a great narrative voice, which I enjoyed when I read A Year of Living Kindly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for saying so, Michelle. I would say exactly the same about your voice. Haven’t read your fiction, but your nonfiction has a strong personality, a steady rhythm, and is always invitingly articulate.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Michelle, I know your writing, and I would never call you as being ” a gentle storyteller.” Stick with the anger; Being passionate about something (anger) makes life interesting. Besides, it keeps one on their toes.
    Miss you.


  3. This made me smile. I think the world has plenty of room for gentle storytellers, but then again if I ever get published my ‘tea cosy’ of a book would likely end up in the remainder bin! I totally get what you mean about not being able to conform to some thrilling standard of fiction, literary or otherwise, yet having a deep desire to be known and heard by readers. So while you made me giggle (I share your love of a good curse), I was also moved. More, please!


    1. Thanks! I just read that the average author makes approximately 20K per year, so it makes you think – if I’m not in this for the fame or the money, what is it that really matters to me about writing? For me, beyond the actual act of writing, it’s the idea that even one reader will connect and enjoy what I’ve written – again, all about that sense of belonging and being known. It makes it easier to stay the course, I think, if you can drill down to what really matters to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t know that I would call you a “gentle storyteller,” whatever that means. You are extremely articulate and very honest in your writing. You openly share how you’re feeling and I never doubt your sincerity. I think you write with great courage, it’s not easy to bare your soul the way you do. You think a lot about what you’re going to say and you’re never afraid to share your opinions. Your “voice” is authentically your own and I wouldn’t change a thing. And btw, I love nothing more than some good swearing.


    1. Hi Fransi! If there is anything I’ve learned over the last few years of writing in workshops and classes, it’s that darn near everything is subjective and that I’m rarely a good arbiter of my own work, in terms of how it will be perceived. It’s a curious failing on my part due to this excruciating self-awareness in every other area of my life. But then, it is also freeing to realize that you simply have to write what you yourself enjoy. How a creative work is perceived is not only out of your control, but should be of marginal interest to you. Of course, you’ve been in PR, which is a little different, but entirely creative endeavors, unsolicited, don’t have the same metrics.
      My daughter joked about a swear jar, but I told her there isn’t a jar big enough. It’s such a cheap pleasure and provides some measure of relief!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve been in advertising as well as PR and I’ve also written a fair number of articles in the last few years, some solicited some not. In my line of work, everyone and their aunt Millie has an opinion about your writing, so I’ve developed a thick skin. You have to or you wouldn’t survive. I have to serve many masters — I do get briefs, so to a great degree I am writing what the client wants. But at the same time I have to be happy/proud of the finished product. Sometimes those can be in conflict, but I’m happy to say that in a very long career, I’ve never given any client a piece of work I wasn’t happy with or proud to have my name on. A swear jar wouldn’t cut it for me. I need more of a swear warehouse. Swearing saves me from strangling people. It’s my drug of choice.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I look forward to imposing my book on readers as well! Fortunately, this is one I have to finish, as it is also serving as my MFA thesis (must be completed work of fiction). I’m a grown woman who needs an academic babysitter to see a project through. Not even a little ashamed by that fact!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Don’t shoot the messenger, but you have a very calming reading voice. I promise not to fall asleep and drown in the bath tub listening to you. If only because I fear killing my laptop the same way by accident. Good words, well spoken, in a timely age. There are worse ways to be remembered than for one’s gentleness.


  6. I can so relate to many of your points! First, with everything going on in the world right now, I could really go for a “gentle” story. I want to escape the chaos, not dive into more of it in a book. Second – Writing Contests: As we are supposed to do, I study them before entering. When I look at past winning stories, so many are about incest, abuse, violence and my simple stories just wouldn’t make the cut. Third: I’m based in Canada, but if your Fall writing class is on Zoom, I’m in! Welcome back.


    1. Thank you! I’ve been in several contests and no matter what the prompts are, I inevitably write something “relaxing”. As with most humans, I’ve had my share of trauma with no wish to live there. I think, too, if part of storytelling is to bring clarity to an idea (and I think it is), is it necessary to traumatize readers to do that? And if you are going to write about dramatic events, is it necessary to leave the wounds open, not give the reader a sense of hope or closure?
      People will argue for realistic representation in fiction, but that’s what we have news for – writing to me serves the purpose of finding the message in a story. I don’t expect everyone to have the same goal or intent, which is fine, but then we also cannot ingest the message that our writing is lacking because we don’t have unrelenting misery.
      And yes, it will be a Zoom workshop. I’m going to do a free Saturday one in August, just as introduction (and practice for me!), which I’ll be sure to advertise on my blog. Thrilled that you’re interested!


  7. All I know is that I wish I could write well, but I can’t and that’s why I so enjoy reading good writing, be it a blog, essay or a long book. Some excel and you do.


    1. My first thought was – where did you get the idea that you couldn’t write well? I meet so many people who feel this way, yet I have to wonder if someone said they couldn’t or didn’t, and it just became lore. Not that everyone wants to write, of course – thank goodness for readers, but I’m still always curious.


  8. Good to hear of your MFA progress. Also good to know you will be doing a workshop. “Mrs. A” has become “Unplanned” but is still unpublished. Hope you are making lots of contacts at school. Don’t forget about me, please. Caroline got invited to the Maple Grove Night Writers. They’re still meeting. Really enjoyed your blog piece. We are meeting at the Arts Center again, beginning Wednesday. Marj Helmer


  9. Certainly true, Michelle, that writing – whether gentle or angry – is an act of exposure. One way to look at it, I suppose, is that without sharing we hardly exist – vulnerable both ways, perhaps, with the difference being activity rather than passivity. Thanks for getting me thinking, anyway!


  10. I just started reading Age of Anger, A History of the Present. It’s heavy stuff as one might expect, but worth the effort so far as it presents anger as a global phenomenon, not just a personal shortcoming.


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