What Story Means and How It Matters

There’s a high school chemistry teacher I know. He’s unsatisfied with his job and his life. He can’t afford to support his family on a teacher’s salary, so he has to work a part time job at a car wash where his boss belittles him everyday. Just when he thought life couldn’t throw him anymore curve balls, he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His wife is 8 months pregnant, and he has a 16 year old son with cerebral palsy. He leads a pretty normal middle class life. He and his wife own a decent size home in a decent middle class suburb. But the cancer diagnosis will change everything for him and his family. They can lose it all because he can’t afford to pay for the medical care he needs. It’s criminal that his insurance company won’t cover his surgery. He will die if he doesn’t get the surgery and treatment! So, what can he do? His son Walt, Jr. set up a web page so people can donate money to help pay for his dad’s surgery and treatment. They are such a loving family! My heart just aches for Walt, his wife and children! But…Walt has tragically chosen to become a meth cook and drug kingpin. 

Breaking Bad’s main character Walter White
“I am the danger!” 
If you don’t know, this is the story of Walter White, a fictional character from AMC’s drama series Breaking Bad. I don’t know this teacher because he doesn’t exist in real life, or perhaps he exists in all of us. I hope not. When asked this week to think about what I associate with the word storytelling, and what storytelling means to me the first word that popped into my mind was emotion. Then I thought about the emotional roller coaster Breaking Bad creates for me and its millions of viewers each week.  Writer Vince Gilligan’s story line has the classic elements of being a tragedy because of the main character’s hubris, but it’s fresh and original too, especially for TV. Never in the history of television, has there been this type of storytelling where the audience can be both deeply repulsed by the monster Walter White has become, yet empathize and root for him when he “kills with impunity to care for his family.” What I associate with storytelling are story lines like Breaking Bad‘s, that are believable, relatable, haunting, and now and again, make us question our own moral integrity. During the act of storytelling, the narrator makes the characters so true to life, you forget you are listening, reading, or watching fiction because these characters remind us of ourselves; they make us wonder what we would do under the same circumstances, how far we would go, and thinking those thoughts take us into uncomfortable territory. Good storytelling is about evoking this type of intense emotional response in the audience. Vince Gilligan’s storytelling style reaches deep down into our soul and creates this morally ambiguous world we can’t make up our minds about. 

What comes to mind visually when you think of the word? 
Images, places, people, sounds? 
Who do you recall as telling you memorable stories?

However, storytelling is not always fiction based, and my parents and my grandfather come to mind when I think of the word as well… my grade school teachers, and my daughters too. These people have been riveting storytellers for me. I can still recall the moving stories my parents and grandfather shared about their childhood, their experiences as exiles to the U.S., family stories about relatives I never met and the family narratives we all rehash during holidays. Why is it that these stories never get old even when we’ve heard them a million times. Somehow the older we get the more we want to hear these old family stories to remind us of the good old days when life seemed so simple.

I also remember the first time my 7th grade English teacher Mrs. Williams read “The Cask of Amontillado” out loud to my class, and the day she told us a very personal story. She told us she had cancer, and she would not be returning for the rest of the year. She died before school ended that year. To this day I remember I hugged her before she left us, and how much I looked forward to her class because she was the best storyteller.

My daughters are in a league of their own as storytellers. These girls can spin a story at the drop of a hat that will bring a tear to your eye, and make you wonder where in the world they come up with such madness. When I need a laugh, their stories are funnier than any writer’s on Saturday Night Live…at least they’re funny to me. On very long car or plane rides, we have a family tradition of storytelling. It involves writing potentially sold out Broadway musicals with a specific storyline related to our destination. One of our lines and the recurring conflict is: “We’re stranded on the streets of …, but we’re lucky we’ve got…” What comes out of their little heads… well, they’re not so little anymore, is pure fun and imagination! Anyway, now that I’ve shared that publicly, when I have writer’s block, I turn to either of them for inspiration. My daughters have told me stories of school bullies, broken hearts, true love, future dreams. I always listen attentively, and offer them my own stories as advice, guidance and solace in knowing I love them unconditionally forever. Storytelling achieves all of this too.

How would you describe the idea of storytelling to someone else? 

If an alien race invaded the earth tomorrow and enrolled in ds106 because they wanted to learn what storytelling entails I would say storytelling involves making other humans feel what someone else is feeling. It’s about making another person or a group of people see that we are not alone in the feelings we feel. Storytelling is universal, and our being human makes it so that our stories may change time, place, or character type, but the conflicts, the emotions remain the same for every single human being on Earth.   

Expand on what it might mean to introduce the word digital. 
What changes? What is different? the same?

The digital in storytelling invites audiences to actively participate rather than passively consume the story. Because of the digital, stories on television, movie theaters, or online invite audiences to take an active role. We use    social media and networking to discuss the story with people around the world, with digital tools we can remix any aspect of the storyline we want, and share our original remixes digitally. The digital has redefined what it means to be the audience. If we choose we can even use the digital to connect with the storyteller to ask questions, offer praise or criticism. What remains the same is our storylines will always be about the human condition.    

Walt White’s temporary partner Dale recites Walt Whitman’s poem
to Walt to express his disillusionment with the world.  


What do you see or think when we say digital storytelling? 

When we say digital storytelling, I see endless opportunities for self-expression and connection. I think about how the storyteller manipulates images and sounds without relying on the written or spoken word to express his/her message, to evoke emotion and to invite us to participate in the act of storytelling. The digital storyteller develops a relationship with the audience and allows us to share the story within our digital network, or remix it as a gesture that the story inspired us to retell it in our own way. So with the spirit of digital remixing and storytelling in mind, here’s my digital story of Walter White’s Breaking Bad…Song of Walt! From the days of Robert Young (aging myself here..used to watch the reruns as a kid) as Father Knows Best to Walter White as the father of Walt, Jr. and surrogate father to Jesse Pinkman, our society’s narratives have changed dramatically. Digital storytelling helps us express and perceive the reality of life in ways we never could before.

*Production Process—I used iMovie, MPEG Streamclip to clip the scenes I needed from YT.