What makes a good story? Theresa Okokon has spent years examining that question through her writing, teaching, live storytelling, and as the co-host of the World Channel’s Stories From the Stage. Here’s Theresa with more.
It’s hard to say what makes a good story, because I think the stories that stand out for me the most from the show, and also, just from being in the storytelling community, in general, are not always the same kind of stories. So I think the one thing that connects them is that a good story for me, has universal human emotions. A good story is going to involve sadness, or it’s going to involve joy, or it’s going to involve even things like imposter syndrome, or, you know, feeling the feeling of not enoughness, it’s just going to involve these feelings that we can all relate to. And for me, when those feelings are involved in a story, that’s what makes the story good for me, because even if I can’t relate to the plot, I can relate to those feelings.
I think that a narrative arc is looked at as a marker of a good story for a couple of reasons. One, I do think that our–I don’t know if it’s our natural human mind, but it’s certainly our like socialized human mind–wants things to have a beginning, a middle and an end. And we want things to be clear. When you can, like feel progress happening, and then you feel resolve at the end, I think that there’s something about being a human that that wants that. I also think this narrative arc kind of approach is very much has to do with a westernized way of telling a story. And I think, in many parts of the world, and in many sort of like, well, even here, in in the Indigenous communities of the United States, you know, I don’t think that a story is always told that way that it’s often like more circular, and it’s sort of like, spins around a resolution and like touches on the resolution, and then spins out and then comes back to it. It’s a lot more like life, as a human, you have a beginning. And then you have your life. And then there’s the end. But like, what you what you learn in that resolution of your end, if anything, it’s not like you learn it at the end, you learn it like circling back and forth, and back and forth several times throughout your life. And I think that that’s a lot more how traditional storytelling works. And it’s how life works.
I have thought a lot about why it is that I’m so comfortable with stories that don’t have a traditional narrative arc, because as a writer and a storyteller, it’s something that I get critiqued on, you know, in, in my own work that I don’t always follow that structure. And I think that the roots of that come from my parents being immigrants, that my mother was born and raised in Ghana, and my father was born and raised in Nigeria. And my father passed away when I was nine. So I have like a child’s memory of him. That’s sort of like, frozen in time as a child would remember something. I don’t know that I remember his stories. I remember that my father told stories, the way that he told stories is not a thing that a nine year old completely connects. But when I talked to my older sister, who’s just two years older than me, but had that like slightly more developed brain at the time when our father died. When I talked to her about this circular writing versus narrative arc. She’s like, you tell stories that way, because that’s how Dad told stories. Dad’s stories felt like they were never going to end, it felt like it was just this all the time lesson and it always comes up and like, we’ll never stop talking about this. That’s how Dad told stories. That is how our dad disciplined us actually was by way of like, telling a story and telling it over and over again and like coming back to it. So I think, I think my, the reason that I am drawn towards that sort of circular way of telling a story is, is because it is how I was raised and that’s because I was raised by people who were not raised in a culture that wants the narrative arc.
So I wrote an essay, it’s called Me Llamo Theresa, and it was published by hippocampus magazine, which is a literary journal. My essay has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, which is very exciting. So basically what happens in the story is that my father gave me the name Ini-Obong. And that is my middle name. And while I was growing up, my entire family called me Ini for short. And then I was raised in a entirely white community of River Falls, Wisconsin. And on my first day of kindergarten, my kindergarten teacher refused to call me Ini and asked my mom, if I had a real American name, that I could be called. And my mom said, like shrug, you can call her Theresa, because Theresa is my first name. And so my kindergarten teacher accepted that and started calling me Theresa and I didn’t even know I don’t even think I knew that Theresa was my name at that time, like I just, I literally learned to go by this name in school. You learn the alphabet, you learn how to two plus two equals four, and you learn that you answer to the name Theresa. That’s one of the things I learned in kindergarten.
I think names obviously, everyone’s got a name. And so it’s a thing that people can relate to. And I think that’s why that story is so popular and why that essay is so popular is because, as I said earlier, it is it’s universal emotion. You know, that’s that’s what makes a good story that people are connected to that. I don’t know how many people are raised by African immigrants and given a Ibibio name and then offer that Ibibio name, and they’re all white Elementary School in Wisconsin and are told it’s not American enough, give me something else and then learn how to go by a different name. That’s a pretty unique story, probably not a lot of people experienced it. However, feeling like what I have to offer is somehow not enough for this community, or tainted or not just not right for this community. That is a thing that a lot of people can relate to. And that’s part of why that story is so popular. Whether or not that story has an has a narrative arc. There’s elements of a narrative arc in it, it starts really close to present, and then zooms back and then comes back to present which is something that I do in quite a few of my essays, which, because I do that so much as part of why I’m like, who cares about a narrative arc? That’s how I That’s how life that’s how you experience life. You, you have these things that happen in your past and then something happens in the current and you’re like, oh, now I understand that thing from the past.
Theresa Okokon is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. Her essay, Me Llamo Theresa, is a 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee.
For iPondr, I’m Angie Chatman.
Audio story edited and co-produced by Annie Sinsabaugh
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