Going back a few years, I can remember a conversation I had with a gal named Katrina during our freshman year in college. Being a dippy 18-year-old trying to impress a cute girl, I was trying my best to give off a positive vibe that I hoped would be returned. So I started telling all these goofy tales of what my friends and I did back in high school.
Her response: She said I was good at telling stories. “I guess I am a storyteller,” is what I said in return.
Nothing ever happened between me and Katrina, but that conversation stuck. At the time, I had no clue what I was going to become later in life, but here I am, many years later, and being a storyteller is a major part of who I am.
The process of becoming this thing, this “storyteller,” has been a gradual one of learning to observe and to write, to work for peanuts while honing my craft, and of course, reading the works of good writers who have taken their trade further than me. Storytelling has taken me to desperate neighborhoods, lonely rural towns, sporting events and crime scenes. The horror of the Oklahoma City bombing, the destruction from some of the most powerful tornadoes ever recorded, and interviewing a death row inmate two days before his execution (then watching him die in the death chamber) stick out as some of the most colorful and unforgettable moments in this still evolving career in writing.
Lately, I’ve shied away from all that stuff and turned my efforts toward the outdoors. The stories I find there – the people, the places, and how they interact – have become far more interesting to me than what had turned into an endless parade of shootings, stabbings, criminal trials and storm stories.
The one constant in all of these experiences, however, is that a good story carries itself. If it’s really worth telling, it won’t need any add-ons, embellishments or unnecessary injections of self to make it worth reading.
The temptation, however, is for storytellers to make something more of the story – and maybe of themselves – than what’s really there. Infamous fabricators like Greg Mortenson, Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass come to mind, creating stories from composites of different people they know, or even just making things up as they went along for the sake of beefing up their careers.
Sneakier still – storytellers relating a real event, one in which they had some proximity, and then making their own experiences something bigger than they actually were.
Brian Williams has made a lot of headlines of late for growing a story over the years about how a military helicopter in which he rode during the early days of the Iraq war came under fire from Iraqi troops.
The real story is that it was a different helicopter that absorbed a round from an RPG, not the one Williams was in. That chopper landed in the same place Williams’ ride came to rest minutes later, which is how he learned about what had happened.
The two things I get from this: First, it sounds far more dramatic to say that it was your helicopter that took fire, and certainly it gives you more “cred” as a war correspondent to be able to tell a tale in which you were in mortal danger while doing your job. But second, is there still a good story to be told by sticking to the facts?
The answer, obviously, is yes. Talking about others whose experiences are as dramatic as wartime combat is fodder for excellent storytelling. But given the choice between the more exciting version of events in which he falsely inserted himself into the action or a more pedestrian approach of putting others’ stories above himself, Williams chose the former.
That, my friends, is the danger facing any storyteller today, maybe more so now than in times past. There is so much emphasis placed on building personal brands, even in professional journalism, that the temptation becomes that much more intense. The problem is if a fabrication is unearthed, the damage to personal credibility is crippling and a brand is ruined.
I see this as a huge pitfall among those of us writing about outdoor experiences. Unlike mass media journalism, outdoor writing as a niche is much more cramped with far fewer opportunities to make hay than what you see in other realms. Building personal brands becomes that much more crucial, and when it comes to establishing credibility, a lot of it depends not just on how well you can tell that story, but on the things you actually do while outside. So people spend a lot of time carefully crafting an image, documenting trips and feats, dragging along their friends to film/photograph them or, in increasingly common fashion, employing the use of GoPro cameras or selfie sticks. The more rad, the better, because Lord knows no one wants to follow a lame Instagram feed.
Fortunately, the fakers are usually easy to catch. Routes can be checked, and photos can be compared to similar images other people have taken. The Adventure Journal recently wrote up a really good piece on Cesare Maestri’s decades-old claims on an ascent on Cerro Torre in 1959, and how they’ve come under new scrutiny. There is a lot to be gained for someone successfully gaining a summit like that, even before “personal branding” became the thing that it is today. There is also much to lose if that feat is exposed as false.
I could easily see how getting turned back on a peak like Cerro Torre would be extremely dramatic. There just aren’t many towers like that in the world, especially those in harsh places like Patagonia. It might not be as compelling as overcoming the elements and gaining the summit, but it is far better than a falsehood unraveling for everyone to see.
So that brings me back to the essence of good storytelling. The tale has to be compelling and well-told, but it also has to be true, even if you have to diminish yourself during the course of its telling. Readers are interested in a good story, but Katrina and people just like her know the difference between a storyteller and a bullshitter. That’s something Mr. Williams knows all too well right now.