One of my first assignments in journalism school was to write a 250-word news article. We were given facts and details, and a time limit of 30 minutes. My classmates typed away while I stared at my screen. The assignment felt impossible; how was I to get my point across in so few words?
I agonized and went through a gamut of emotions from worthlessness and questioning why I was even in this classroom to defiance that 250 words weren’t going to break me, damnit! My article wasn’t very good; nor was my grade. Many other assignments followed. Eventually I learned to hyperfocus and just WRITE. And then I began thinking about the process of storytelling: What makes a compelling story and how do you tell it in a compelling way? Also: Who will you tell it to?
A good story = good characters. To whom Something Happens. Sometimes they overcome that Something; sometimes they don’t.
Obstacles make good stories. Staples, like good v. bad; self v. nature; self v. self.
And then there’s who’s listening to the story. The concept of the audience you write for is something we only delved into midway through journalism school, and I think it should have been addressed sooner, because it rocked my storytelling world. It’s easy (and simplistic) to think Kevin Costner-like: If you write it, they will come [and read]. That’s not always the case. Especially in an oversaturated world when messages come at us constantly, how does a storyteller break through so much noise to get a point across?
I think about storytelling in the context of Poland and Poland’s stories a lot, because I write about Poland and Poles often. I do it for my work, but I also do it because I feel a deep need to catalog and pass along our stories.
Our narrative is vast and expansive; it’s also complex. Poland’s geographical location caught us up in the largest storms of the 20th century but also tossed us back and forth in earlier centuries. Our WW2 history is especially complicated. The war had the most profound effect on our country in its history. Millions of our citizens were killed; hundreds of thousands were exiled. Nazi Germany built its horrific death camps and performed their horrid experiments and murders on our lands that they’d brutally occupied. There’s also the fact that so much of our intelligentsia was eradicated during WWII by Soviet Russia, because a nation without leaders and professors and thinkers is much easier to control (the communists thought). And after the war was over, we were “liberated” by Soviet Russia. For the record: It wasn’t liberation. And when I see photos of a smiling Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt sitting comfortably during the Yalta conference where the two Western leaders gave my country to Uncle Joe, I feel rage and sadness and powerlessness.
Layer onto that decades of communist repression, which systematically worked like Orwell’s infamous Ministry of Truth to eliminate so many of our stories – especially the positive ones. But a positive story finally triumphed: Solidarity, and with it – freedom and democracy.
So here we are today. Poland is free and has been for more than two decades. What now? I think that we can reflect and look back – but also look forward, taking the best from our past and creating a new and wonderful future.
But questions remain: How do we tell our stories? Could I write a 250-word story of Poland in WWII? How about 250 words on Solidarity or on Poland today? Could I ever get across all the political complexities, the shifting alliances, all the different sets of stories?
And what about audience: Who do we tell our stories to? A cycle in journalistic storytelling on the definition of newsworthiness forms a closed circle: Things are newsworthy because people have heard of them before – i.e. Starlet goes to jail. But if all we talk and report about are things that people already know, where’s the market for unknown stories? Does it exist?
I think it does and that it’s super important for us as Poles and Polish-Americans to tell our stories. But not just to ourselves. We need to get them out into the wider world. To do that, we must tell the stories in a way that is mindful of our audience. Here’s what our journalism profs taught us: Let go of the notion that every single detail is crucial. Learn how to paraphrase, consolidate, summarize and analyze. And always tell the truth.
We have such great stories to tell! Who wouldn’t be thrilled by Lech Wałęsa climbing onto the Gdańsk shipyard walls and defiantly raising his fists in a gesture that told the communists: No. Or the thrilling tales of Polish WWII pilots – among the best in the world – who fought in the Battle of Britain and greatly contributed to the Allied victory? Or Monte Cassino, the rocky hill in Italy with its ancient abbey, occupied by the Germans; army after army tried to storm it but failed. And it was our soldiers who succeeded! What about our brilliant Enigma code breakers, the first in the world? And Żegota, the only secret organization in Europe set up with the sole purpose of saving Jews? And our poets? Our composers? Our artists? Our filmmakers? There are so many stories. We need them to be told and to be known in the world.
Here’s what else we need: to support each other.
There’s a very tragic joke: Satan is showing off his organizational methods, and each nationality has a specialized version of hell. The French have bland food; the Italians are forced to wear cheap, ill-fitting polyester; like that. One group is in a large hole in the ground, but the hole is open and there are no bars. Why? Satan’s asked. Oh, says the Prince of Darkness, those are the Poles. No need for guards or bars – if one of them tries to climb out, the others just pull him right back down.
I hate that joke. Let’s prove Satan wrong, shall we?
- A very rare, electrecord red vinyl record, photographed by Alex:D
- An Underwood typewriter, photo by Kolossos
- Cameras photographed by Garry Knight