Auditing inner & outer narratives amidst the 2016 political fray.
He was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix, of illegitimate birth, became George Washington’s right-hand man, became treasury secretary, caught beef with every other founding father, and all on the strength of his writing.
I think he embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda introducing his musical Hamilton, how a huge hit, in a 2009 preview at the White House.
Like everyone, I’m trying to distill meaning from the deluge of our presidential campaign season. What stories about themselves—and America—are candidates selling? How will the competing truths of those left standing square with mine? What vision will voters pick for the title of Overarching Narrative?
My reflexive analysis occurs while I’m completing an essay about how memory, imagination, and story intertwine. The surprising byproduct of my work has been a radical rethinking of some of my long-unexamined inner narratives. This has been positive personally, and powerful for my essay. Meanwhile, as events, stories, and spin erupt on the national stage, I can only hope our republic’s story emerges from its test similarly affirmed.
Politically, I sway between brilliant writers’ truths. For a day, I fell under the spell of Charles M. Blow’s deft essay in the New York Times, “White America’s ‘Broken Heart.’” Blow lauds Bill Clinton’s “clear rhetorical framing” of the current narrative as being about white America’s anxiety in sharing a new demographic future. Then I leapt to an even more subtle accounting, R.R. Reno’s New York Times essay “How Both Parties Lost the White Middle Class.” Reno calls the racial theory a “huge distraction” from the real issue: those flourishing in the global economy and those foundering.
Reno’s interpretation better fits my sense of simple human self-interest. And it squares with my grand narrative of America as an exceptional but-of-course-flawed child of the Enlightenment. A recent peak of which is that we elected Barack Obama—twice—with votes from members of each party and all races. Reno observes that extreme narratives from both sides blame, in ultimate effect, the white middle class for its own pain. Those stories stoke anger, stir resentment, and worsen a sense of crisis. Then there are simply hateful candidates, such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz with their rage, egotism, and guile. How mistaken their notions of human history and human nature; how meager their own ideas. In colonial times, invitations to meet with pistols at twenty paces greeted less annoying fools.
The question clearly being asked in an exemplary memoir is ‘Who am I?’ Who exactly is this ‘I’ upon whom turns the significance of this story-taken-directly-from-life? On that question the writer of memoir must deliver. Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story
In my own life, I’ve grown suspicious of stories that omit my own nature and agency. Maybe that’s middle-aged wisdom, or just a drop in testosterone. But compassion and humor now seem most characteristic of truth. (Adios Papa Hemingway, bitterly stoic sage of my youth.) Under the influence of work on my essay, which puts a childhood memory of a trip with my father under a microscope, I’m learning to ask questions such as What else? and What if?
What if I’d been good at math? Like my Mom or her father, a math teacher, instead of barely able to add two and two? I might be living a different story, having made different choices. My concerned mother’s story was that I fell between the cracks in the national switch to New Math. My big sister dubbed my innumeracy a “mental block.” My own suspicion is that my disability involved fear or some kind of daydreamer’s rebellion. Or both. The point is, it’s hard to solve for X: the irreducible you. And yet a fair memoir pivots on X. Writing can actually help in finding it, at least if the goal is art, and therefore truth, instead of a tired narrative’s reinforcement. We can’t escape the human mind’s operating system—stories—so getting better at telling them might make us happier.
My math example may seem trivial, but to me it resonates with implication. How hard it is to see one’s own history and agency anew. I recall in graduate school a fellow student’s memoir about her awful ex-boyfriend. He did seem dreadful. But none of us in workshop knew how or whether to ask our burning question: Why did you stay with him for ten years? She’d gotten halfway. He was the situation. She was the story.
Artistic growth is, more than anything else, a refining of a sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist knows how difficult it is.—Willa Cather
One of the milder counter-narratives to my sunny view of Obama’s meaning: “Yeah, we gave our nation to the black guy—after the white guy totally, criminally fubar-ed it.” At least that story is halfway funny. Using my compassion-or-humor test, maybe there’s a truth there. But I see Obama as such an emblem of America’s ideals and as such palpable evidence of our human destiny that I give us more credit. I hope that, in our collective wisdom, we’ll rise again beyond stories that, from whichever side, trash the better angels of our nature.New stories take work; they require insight and imagination. But boy do they wallop. See how writer Lin-Manuel Miranda slashed bone-deep, unveiling in Hamilton, which opened on Broadway last August, the grandeur of new possibilities and emerging realities. Metaphor and implication do heavy lifting. The founding fathers as rapping rebels: brilliant. Hip-hop upstarts as foundational players: genius. Miranda read Ron Chernow’s 2005 biography of Alexander Hamilton and—glory be—inspiration arced between those pages of history and Miranda’s own life and times. Soon America’s narrative awoke in the footlights in new colors.
Adam Gropnik’s fine New Yorker essay on the musical says it asks “what it means to be a progressive hero in the age of Obama.” In tune with our transformative president, it offers a “stunning,” “astonishing” transformative vision, showing “previously marginalized people taking on the responsibility and burden of American history.” Gropnik quotes a friend: Hamilton is “the great work of art, so far, of the twenty-first century.” Then he tells a story of Miranda performing an early version of the musical at the White House for an audience that included Obama:
When he explains his purpose—Hamilton as hip-hop hero!—everyone laughs. Then you see Obama quietly smiling as he listens: he gets it.
Here’s Obama, student of history and historic figure himself, who, among other things, may be the best writer we’ve ever elected president. What does Obama get? What does he see? What might we?
[Magic below: Miranda’s charming performance for Obama.]