KR BlogBlogWriting

The Autobiography of Anything

As of this writing, I’ve spent the last few days hanging around home nursing a cold. During this time, I’ve listened to This American Life, read from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, and watched more Netflix than I’d like to admit. In short, I’ve been immersed in various types of story—as we all are, all the time, whether we’re writers or not.

Not long ago, I gave a presentation surrounding storytelling to a group of grant professionals. In preparation, I read about what storytelling does to our brains, why humans are “helpless story junkies,” and how story can encourage people to help others. Storytelling is woven into the fabric of our daily lives and thus plays an important role in so much of what we do, both personally and professionally.

I’m not and never have been a grant writer, but I’ve worked for several nonprofit organizations and have a sense of how storytelling might be useful in at least certain kinds of grant work. But when I faced a room full of grant writers—many of whom happened to be working on large, federal grants—I appreciated just how different their work is from mine. And while the majority of grant professionals in that room self-identified as writers, there were a few exceptions.

“For me, grant writing is editing and plagiarizing, not writing,” one man said. “You have to wash your brain out [from this work] to get creative.”

He was responding, in part, to the activity I used to close my presentation: The Autobiography of Anything. I brought and displayed a range of objects from my house—including a stone horse figurine, a shaving brush, an opal pendant, a glass paperweight, a miniature Santa hat, and a wind-up stegosaurus toy, among other tchotchkes—and asked attendees to choose an object and write its “autobiography.” Where did the object come from? How was it made? Who created it? How did it finds its way into this room today?

If I worried the exercise seemed a bit silly for a room of high-level professionals who secure major grants for some of the city’s most prominent nonprofit organizations, my fears were allayed when attendees embraced the assignment. In a mere fifteen-minute writing session, they managed to craft fully formed pieces of flash fiction or nonfiction. (Can we pause here and appreciate the art of the writing exercise and how, once we move past our insecurities surrounding drafting something fresh and reading it aloud to strangers, it can result in some worthwhile writing? Every time I watch it happen, I feel like I just witnessed a mild form of literary magic.)

I was especially pleased that the attendees were game to share their writing with one another. Only one person demurred from discussing her work; she explained that it was so personal and emotional she worried she’d start crying. (That’s either really powerful or else the best excuse ever for not reading out loud in a class. Either way, I’ll take it.) Other attendees wrote richly imagined lives for the objects. Overall, I was incredibly impressed by what these grant writers created.

Afterward, I packed up my objects, which were imbued with new meaning thanks to the stories that had been invented for them, and thought about the power of story. I’m not so naïve as to think my process of writing a short story equates to what’s needed to write a federal grant, but even so, story matters. It matters both to the person who writes grants for a living and to the person reviewing that grant who secretly just wants to go home and watch Netflix. Story is part of us all, and it affects our lives intrinsically. We’re hopeless for it.

I also know that anything in the world can have its own autobiography. You just have to write it.