Writing lessons from the Grand Canyon

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Do you appreciate a good story? More importantly, do you use it in the best possible away? This is one of the most important writing lessons you can ever learn.

Once upon a time, a man who now is a naturalist at the Grand Canyon was a nine-year-old boy. He was fascinated by bugs and rocks but not too interested in sports. His parents, however, had been schooled by his older, athletic brother and therefore insisted that the nerdy, recalcitrant boy join the local baseball team.

The boy did as he was told and immediately, the other kids stuck him in right field where, as they put it, “he couldn’t do any harm.” In fact, they even said to him, “don’t catch the ball if it comes your way,” because they didn’t want him messing things up. So he sat on the grass and looked at the bugs and rocks.

My husband told me this story, which is true, when we were walking along the top of the Grand Canyon last week. We were there on a family holiday — seeking canyons of every description — from Red Rock, to Grand, to Bryce, to Zion. (Along the way we also saw the first wonder of the unnatural world, Las Vegas.)

Anyway, my husband heard the story from the naturalist himself, during an evening lecture. I was initially impressed because many public speakers don’t understand that telling stories (particularly stories on themselves) is one of the best ways to communicate facts. “So what was the point he was trying to make?” I asked.

“I dunno,” my husband replied glumly. “The guy was a bit of a nerd.” Coming from my husband, who has a degree in zoology and who almost never says anything mean about anyone, well, that was a serious blow! But was also a good reminder to writers everywhere:

Yes, tell stories. Tell lots of them. But always make sure they have a point. A story on its own is never enough — it needs to drive the reader/listener somewhere specific.

Ironically, a few days later, I came across a perfectly calibrated story that illustrates the same point — only from a positive perspective. On the plane ride home I was reading in the Atlantic, a terrific article headlined What Makes us Happy? It was about the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

For some 72 years this study has followed 268 men who entered Harvard in the 1930s looking at their careers, marriages, divorces and old age. It’s one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. (If you’re interested in learning more, get the Atlantic’s June issue.) Psychiatrist George Vaillant has been chief investigator for the last 42 years and this article focuses on his findings and his own life.

As part of the latter effort, the article included the following anecdote: “Vaillant says his hopeful temperament is best summed up by the story of a father who on Christmas Eve puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, ‘Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break.’ The other boy runs to him and says, ‘Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!’ ”

I love that story, not jut because it’s amusing but also because it seems to capture something both important and ineffable about the subject of the article. It’s so much more than just a joke.

In the words of American poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser “The world is not made up of atoms; it’s made up of stories.

Find them and use them wisely.

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