Brand building through storytelling

What have you accomplished in your life?

Rona Flare

She was sitting in the front row of my session last week at a conference for magazine people. A young editor, I’d guess, in her first or second job. One bare leg curled under her, one arm slung over the back of her chair, head tilted in concentration. She reminded me of women I had worked with, or used to be in my 20s, except that we favoured all-business jackets with padded shoulders (like the one I have on in this photo), and she wore a flutter of a sundress. Now here I was, a former editor-in-chief wrapping up a fireside chat. Just when I thought we’d taken care of the questions, the young woman put up her hand and asked, “When you look back on your career, what do you think you’ve accomplished?”

For the first time all morning, I groped for words. It’s one thing to hold forth on what makes a good magazine, but quite another to sum up the making of your life—the blunders and brainwaves, the hard-won triumphs and the sleep-disrupting doubts—in a couple of tidy sentences, while a roomful of people look on. Better reframe this zinger: “Do you mean, what’s my most important accomplishment?”

“She did not. She looked me in the eye as if I were a writer caught dancing around the point. I’ve used the editorial stare a time or two myself. Show us what you’vereally got, it says.

Okay, here goes. 

Sharing stories has always been part of my work, whether I was interviewing women at their kitchen tables, writing my memoir, planning an issue of Chatelaineor talking with you on this web site. In every story worth pondering, there’s a challenge to surmount and characters whose fates are on the line. There’s also a meaning—not the so-called “deeper meaning” my seventh grade English teacher urged me to hunt down (as if writers deliberately hid their intentions for the sadistic pleasure of flummoxing readers) but a reason to care about the stakes in the drama. I’ve occasionally wondered if a certain story is too gritty, too painful or just too damn weird for readers to care. Yet these tend to be the stories that touch readers most urgently, by giving voice to the unspoken knowledge binding people who, on the surface, couldn’t be less alike.

At last I said, “I’m a seeker of meaning and a maker of meaning. That’s my accomplishment.” Sometimes, of course, I get lost on the journey. But that’s okay. The point is to keep on searching—and refreshing myself with stories other people tell.

The Visitor Movie Image Richard Jenkins  2 One day after the magazine conference, I found myself sobbing in the dark at a subtle little gem of a movie called The Visitor, which I’d never even heard of when my husband proposed that we go. The premise—man finds strangers living in his New York pied a terre—suggested a thriller to me. The first startling nocturnal encounter between Walter, a tweedy, widowed white professor coasting toward retirement, and the young, dark-skinned interlopers (he an Arab, she from Senegal) appeared to confirm my suspicions that this couple were up to no good. In fact they’re simply terrified, and with reason: they’re illegal immigrants who were hoodwinked into renting Walter’s apartment. For them, the place is just one more fleeting pit stop in the tortuous and secretive quest to eke out another day in the land of opportunity. On an impulse that bespeaks a subterranean urge to shake up his apparently meaningless life, Walter asks them to stay and strikes up a transformative friendship with Tarek, a rambunctious Syrian drummer young enough to be his son.

Within days, the painfully strait-laced professor discovers he too can cut loose on Tarek’s drum. More important, he discovers a purpose: defending his friend as deportation, long a constant worry, becomes an urgent threat posed by a faceless, rule-bound bureaucracy. Tarek lands in a detention centre, separated from his friend by a glass panel as if he’d committed a crime. “Don’t leave me!” he pleads. Walter’s stricken face projects a maelstrom of emotion: fear, desperate loyalty and a kind of awestruck gratitude at the depth of his own caring for this man he has only just met. Suddenly, his life means something. If he doesn’t fight for Tarek, who will?

I’m not one to weep at movies, but this encounter made me cry. It eloquently captured both the accessibility of meaning in every life, at every stage, and the emotional vulnerability that is the price of admission. To stand for someone, or something, is to risk the trampling of your hopes.

I won’t tell you what becomes of Walter’s newfound hopes. But it won’t spoil the movie if I share what’s on my mind right now as I reflect on the story I lived and the one I’ve just watched. As an editor-in-chief, I had to focus on results: newsstand sales and subscription renewals. More often than not, I made the numbers. But numbers, for me, were never the point of it all. The stories were. Stories matter. Now more than ever.

Posted by Rona

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