by Loren Niemi and Elizabeth Ellis
Book Review by Joan Stockbridge
Like a good story, this book can be taken on many levels. Niemi and Ellis have written a book that is an excellent how-to handbook on telling difficult stories as well as a meaningful exploration of the deeper reasons behind the human need to tell and hear challenging stories. Each chapter is well illustrated with cogent examples of difficult stories told by Niemi and Ellis (and a few others) and also contains useful exercises.
By now you might well be asking yourself, “What exactly is a difficult story?” The first sentence of the book provides an answer: “A difficult story is any story whose content makes it challenging to tell or uncomfortable to hear.” The authors provide examples of many different kinds of difficult stories, including traditional stories such as Mr. Fox; historical stories on topics such as racism; personal stories on subjects like rape, illness, or addiction; and political stories. Telling these charged and possibly confronting stories, the authors argue, honors the complexity of our human nature. Such stories illuminate hidden fears, honor suffering, and offer hope. They can provide nourishment for personal transformation and community change. They are powerful—and they must be handled carefully, for the sake of both teller and listener.
The ten chapters of the book take the reader through a carefully designed sequence that explores the art of telling difficult stories. Each chapter also contains exercises that step by step help readers write and tell difficult stories. Dangers abound with this kind of story. Tellers can become personally overwhelmed by material that is too charged. Tellers can create a crisis for listeners by blasting through sensitive material without sufficient awareness of audience needs. Niemi and Ellis discuss these types of dangers and point out the need for trust, ownership, and permission: qualities that resonate between the teller, listener, and story to create the conditions within which a difficultstory can be told to the benefit of both teller and listener. Niemi and Ellis observe that when a difficult story is successfully told, the listener forms an independent relationship to the story itself, while the teller gets out of the way. While this is true of any good storytelling, the heightened nature of emotionally charged material makes it more imperative for the teller to achieve distance, and more difficult to do so.
The exercises are a key element of the book, taking readers through a multitude of activities, from personal journaling through point of view and structure exercises. Having taught and taken many creative writing classes, I believe that these exercises would be very valuable for anyone trying to write. They provide a unique lens with which to look at questions of form and intent. The chapters which look at nuances about emotional tone, perspective, and moral framework, for example, help a reader find a way through the quagmire one can often find oneself in when wading into a piece of significant writing. So far, I’ve only done the exercises in the first four chapters, but I uncovered many surprising nuggets and look forward to making more discoveries in the remaining exercises.