Ken Burns on Story
Stories, as we all know, are powerful. They give us the ability to take amorphous thoughts and feelings and make them concrete and accessible. For this reason, we make sense of and share most of our life in and through story – not just big huge narratives but all the little stories we tell day in and day out. Which means that to understand and share just about anything important you need to understand something about how stories work.
Which makes what Ken Burns says about story all the more interesting. Burns, director of some of the most significant and important documentary films in our generation, talks in this video about how story works and about why it is so important to him and to all of us. His dominant metaphor — the great story is the one where 1+1=3 – is not only, I think, about the whole being greater than the sum of it’s parts. I think it’s also about the unexpected, even the impossible. Sometimes we tell stories that shouldn’t be true, but still somehow are. And when we encounter those kinds of things, everything but story fails to capture it. A picture, a fact, a statement, an experiment – these all may have roles to play, but it’s the story that finally draws into an experience beyond our normal abilities and bounds. No wonder preachers love story. Even more, no wonder the Gospel – indeed, the whole of the biblical witness – is a Story.
I was also struck by the last moment or two when Burns confesses that part of telling story is to give life to something that is gone, be it the person and importance of Abraham Lincoln or the mother he lost as a child. Again, the connection to our faith story is there if you want to make it. We believe that this larger than life, 1+1=3, impossible-but-still-true story does give life, abundant life, now and in the world to come. That’s a ways off, though, and something we don’t have direct access to, so in the meantime we wait, and pray, and hope…and tell the story.
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I came across this video on both The Heart of Innovation and Brain Pickings, but (and not surprisingly) Maria Popova listed it first. The video appeared on Vimeo a few weeks ago and was recently featured, along with a brief interview, at The Atlantic.