On Storytelling

By Michael W. Harris

I suck at video games. There is a reason why the most recent console I own is a Playstation 2 and it is not because I am cheap or that I do not enjoy video games. It is that I suck at them. I do not know the first thing about “first person shootin’” and I don’t really care to learn because I don’t really have the time. However, if you do look through what games I do own for the limited systems I do have (PS2, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and my PC), you will discover that the majority of them are role-playing or adventure games. The reason for this is because when I do play games, I am mainly in it for the story. I love a good story.

I mention this by way of how I labeled myself a storyteller in my “Rage Quit” post. This is why I love history and archives, and it is what I strive to do in my teaching: tell a story, create a narrative. To me, this is what generates interest, it is what hooks people in and gets them invested. When you can impart information via the medium of story it makes it more impactful and easier to retain.

I also just love a good story.

Good storytelling also jolts us out of our complacency within academia, which can get to far down the rabbit hole of minute details and data driven studies. It can make our dry articles or calcified theoretical models more interesting to hear about because it also teaches us how to write more engaging prose. We can link together many thoughts, use digressive asides and nested ideas, or use various punctuations to build a rhythm and flow. Or we just use short sentences. Using the period to break-up thoughts. Demarcate ideas. Vary the pace at which the reader moves through our texts.

I mentioned in that previous post that I have taken three creative writing classes during my academic career, and I believe that these are a big reason why my writing has so often drawn praise from my teachers. But it is not the only reason. The other is that I read a lot as a child, read above my “grade level” and devoured prose is multiple formats and genres. Novels, short stories, comic books, fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, biography, history…you name it and I probably read something in it. But I also ingested storytelling through other media: film, television, video games, radio, and later on podcasts.

But thinking of myself as a “storyteller” has only occurred in the last five or so years. I think the realization began when I was working on my doctoral dissertation and, more than anything else, I wanted to write a biography of Fumio Hayasaka but was told that that wasn’t really “a dissertation.” It was a fair enough point, but while I was writing my dissertation, I kept having to pull myself back from writing sections, chapters, what-have-you, as more biographical rather than academic analysis. This tendency can really be seen in the “Afterthoughts” that I wrote for my Cinema Journal article, which is straight up storytelling. That piece was part confessional, part the story of a friendship, and, despite some cringe-worthy grammar errors and awkward phrasing, is also one of the pieces that I am most proud of.

It is also a piece that began life as part of my dissertation that I eventually had to cut out.

Once I made this realization, that storytelling was where my true heart, interest, and talents lie, I started to reevaluate what it was I was doing. This was when terms like “public musicology” and “alt-ac” started to enter my vocabulary, and also happened to be when I made the leap from adjunct life to library land. It was when I really started to question and begin to answer that difficult query: how can I best contribute to the betterment of those around me?

I am by no means bashing academia here. What academics do, both sciences and humanities alike, are important and essential for our society. It may be trite and clichéd, but the saying does have truth to it: the sciences can save the world, but the humanities make it worth saving. But I realized that academia was not the best use of my talents, along with the fact that I was getting nowhere in it. It was also not helping me to actually be happy or even begin to achieve happiness. However, I do not regret spending six years of my life doing a PhD because it helped me develop, hone, and learn tools and skills that I will use for the rest of my life in whatever storytelling I may do as a writer, archivist, or whatever may lie ahead.

“And what does lie ahead?” you may ask.

Well I have two personal projects that I am beginning to work on right now, along with some work related projects, which I hope to be the start of the next chapter of my storytelling and writing life. The first isn’t so much me telling stories as it is giving others the tools to help write them: the Collections of Cinema and Media Music Database, or C2M2. The site right now is nothing more than a placeholder of the domain I registered, but eventually this will be a fully searchable database telling researchers where the scores or collections of films and composers are held. I will have to crowdsouce much of the data, but I hope to have a beta version of the site up and running by the end of the year and continue to add to it as scholars inform me about collections.

The other personal project that I am looking forward to starting is a new podcast that I am calling Music Aural History (again, currently just a placeholder site). As you might guess from the name, it is a sort of oral history focusing on music. My basic idea is to interview friends, colleagues, whoever, and talk about a specific piece of music and why it is important or meaningful to them, all edited into a 15-20 minutes podcast form. In preparation for the interview, I will have listened to and researched the piece so that we can intelligently talk about it and its history. But more importantly, I hope that the interview will tie together the history of the piece with a story about the person I am talking with because music IS history on so many levels. It is such an important part of our lives, though today it seems to recede into background noise because of how ubiquitous portable music devices are.

These are just two projects, and I hope to also begin cooking up some stuff with my site designer Sienna Wood in the near-ish future. Of course, it could all come to naught like so many things in life, but I am excited for what the future might hold. And, most importantly, I am doing these things because I love what I am doing, and it is all aided by doing work that I love in libraries and archives.

As I sit here, typing this, “Untitled 3” from Sigur Rós’s ( ) has started playing, and I can’t help but think that it is the perfect accompaniment to the positive, uplifting, and optimistic outlook that I have right now. Life isn’t perfect, but I have a plan, a purpose, a goal, and I am moving forward with trying to achieve it.

And that is my story…for now.

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