The Power of a Story (A Case Study re: Why Your Stories Matter)
A few nights ago, I watched the documentary Icarus. During the entire two hours, my heart was flopping around in my chest, my breath shallow, my hands squeezed into fists on top of my stomach.
When the documentary ended, I was stunned — barely able to move from my seat on the couch.
"Wow," I kept saying to my husband. "Wow. I don't even know where to go from here. What are we supposed to do after watching that?"
The documentary begins as a cycling fanatic's investigation into the doping practices that rocked his sport toward the end of Lance Armstrong's heyday, and escalates in a series of shocking leaps and bounds until the documentary makers and their primary subject are embroiled in blowing the lid off the Russian government's state-sponsored doping program (which involved many of the top officials in Russia, including one Vladimir Putin).
The documentary ends with the main subject, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, disappearing into the United States' witness protection program because the Russian FSB (formerly KGB) is deemed a credible threat to his life. His whistle-blowing prompted the removal of more than a hundred Russian athletes from competition at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and inspired a global uproar about ethics in government and sports.
Throughout it all, the Academy Award-winning documentary does a remarkable job of humanizing an extremely complex character.
Rodchenkov is part villain and part hero. He did wildly unethical things, but often for defensible reasons such as protecting athletes from unclean substances and protecting his own life. He is simultaneously capable of guiltlessness and remorse. He atones for his errors while deriving an apparent level of pride from helping 13 Russian athletes win gold medals by doping and hiding the evidence. He sacrifices the life he has known — his home in Russia, his connection to his wife and children — in order to divulge the truth. He is an unabashed lover of dogs.
Ultimately, the documentary is about so much more than athletes taking steroids.
It's about perverse government corruption, the perils of living under a dictatorship, the obsession with winning at all costs, the ways in which human beings can convince themselves of their own righteousness even while doing unethical things. It's about people doing what they need to survive. It's about courage and the many forms it takes. It's about the blurry lines between "right" and "wrong," "good" and "bad". And it's about the importance of telling the truth.
What does all this have to do with creative writing?
As I sat gripping the couch cushion beneath me, seemingly incapable of looking away from the TV screen, I kept thinking to myself, this is the power of story.
The documentary only exists because Bryan Fogel (the director and a producer of Icarus) wanted to tell a story about doping in sports.
Because Rodchenkov is willing to tell his story, he becomes more than a criminal mastermind behind an international scandal. His storytelling shines the light of truth and justice and reveals him to be a compelling, lovable character. In the process, he serves as a case study for the complexity of human beings and the capacities and limitations of justice.
It seems, also, that the process of telling his story provides some relief for Rodchenkov. At one point during an interview, he is asked directly if it's true that the Russian government manufactured a state-sponsored doping program, and then if it's true that he was an active participant. As he responds affirmatively to each question, it's as if you can see a weight lifting off of him — the weight of a story that's gone too long untold.
Layered on top of these sub-stories, of course, is the overarching story: a massive, sinisterly orchestrated government conspiracy with international implications, one that sent shockwaves around the world (and through anyone who watches Icarus.) That story was exposed only because a man was brave enough to tell it.
And then there's 1984. Rodchenkov is a student of George Orwell's text, and at many points in the documentary he waxes philosophical about the ways in which his life experiences have mirrored many of the ideas put forth in the classic novel. He makes sense and meaning out of his life experiences precisely because the story of 1984 presented him with concepts and verbiage to articulate his experiences.
Imagine if any of these people had chosen not to tell their story
Imagagine if they didn't tell these stories because they were silenced by the pervasive writer's block that goes something like, Who cares? What's the point? Do I really have something valuable to say?
Imagine if George Orwell had told himself that writing fantasy novels was a frivolous use of his time.
Imagine if Bryan Fogel had told himself that nobody would care to watch a documentary about doping in sports (and consequently had never meant Rodchenkov).
Imagine if Grigory Rodchenkov had decided to keep his mouth closed instead of bravely sharing his story — first with Fogel, then with New York Times journalists, and then with the world at large.
Because of each of these stories, the global community has gained more insights into ethics in sports and government corruption, and we've been challenged to think about people in more nuanced ways. Because of these stories, there is a possibility for at least some level of justice to take place.
The documentary makers get this. At the 90th Academy Awards, where they won for Best Documentary Feature, Fogel reportedly accepted the award with the following remarks:
We dedicate this award to Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, our fearless whistle-blower who now lives in great danger. We hope 'Icarus' is a wake-up call — yes, about Russia, but more than that, about the importance of telling the truth, now more than ever.
The importance of telling the truth. In my mind, that's just another way of saying that stories are powerful, and they are worth telling.
No matter whether you share your story with a private journal, a small circle of supportive friends, or the world at large, there is power in telling it.
What stories are inside of you, waiting for the day they can burst forth and set some truth free?