Sports

Matt Dickerson: The power of stories

Anglers like to tell stories.
I’ll admit that’s not always a good thing. Some anglers may tend to ramble a little bit. Some of their fish stories may even involve an exaggeration or two. I’ve even been accused myself of sometimes rambling, and perhaps stretching the facts a little. Because, after all, a 22-and-a-half-inch trout is basically a 23-inch fish. And it really matters how I started the morning with coffee, which thermos I put the coffee in, why I decided to go with my felt-soled wading shoes rather than cleats, and how I carefully and with great anguish of mind selected that one particular fly that eventually caught that two-foot long trout. (And why and how, for each of the other 37 flies in the box, I decided not to use it.)
But stories really are important. Stories make connections. Stories build our imaginations. Stories make connections precisely by building our imaginations, which in turn build our sympathies. A society needs stories because a society needs imagination and sympathy.
I was reminded of this last weekend when I was invited to give a talk at L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine. The talk was about the ecological importance of native fish, and thereby also the importance of efforts at preservation, conservation and restoration of native fish. It was based on my time as artist-in-residence at Acadia National Park in Maine in 2018, and based largely on the stories I told about that time in my recent book. I could have presented the talk with lots of abstract scientific principles — concepts of fitness, resilience and interdependence — and lessons about various environment threats and challenges. And those principles are important. It’s good to understand them. But I had lots of photos and videos of Acadia and its waters, and I found myself just showing photos and telling my stories about fish, and water, and places I spent time, and about efforts in those places to protect or restore native fish. Some of the stories were success stories, full of hope and promise. Some were more sobering stories of work that still needed to be done, and of the consequences of our failures to preserve.
I thought I was providing ecological lessons. And I was. When I finished, however, what the audience commented on was how much they appreciated the stories. Stories are about particulars and details, and they take the abstract concepts and make them real.
Stories are also about people. And, in particular, the most worthwhile stories are about people who are different from us in some way or another. Good stories — both fiction and non-fiction — help us understand those people who are different, which in turn can help us build sympathy: a trait that is sorely lacking in our world today. A quick perusal of the news or our favorite social media might suggest that our culture is more interesting in vilifying those who are different, or building walls (metaphorical as well as real) to exclude each other rather understanding each other. How often do people respond with vitriol to a disagreeable Facebook post without first pausing to wonder what experiences the other person has had, why they think the way the think, and how that other person might view you and your ideas?
A couple years ago, a late friend of mine and formal spiritual mentor named Eugene Peterson was being interviewed on NPR’s “On Point” about the importance of fiction. He suggested that reading fiction was a vital part of becoming more sympathetic persons, and he recommended several novelists — writers he thought worth reading in part because of their ability to present characters and then deepen our understanding and sympathies for those characters who might at first have been unsympathetic.
One author Peterson mentioned was Charles Dickens, and in particular his novel “The Pickwick Papers.” Interestingly enough, another friend of mine — a writer I admire, Bristol author John Elder — had also recently recommended the same book. At Elder’s suggestion, I had read “The Pickwick Papers,” and so I knew exactly what Peterson meant. The book had opened my eyes to see people in a new light, to be less quick to judge, and less quick to write somebody off because they disagreed with me about some particular topic or another.
Sometimes I am especially fortunate, and I find a book that combines fishing and beautiful story telling. Such is the case with Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical novella “A River Runs Through It.” At the end of the novel, the narrator recalls a conversation with his father. “You like to tell true stories, don’t you?” the father asks. The narrator replies that he does. The father than tells him, “After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it? Only then will you understand what happened and why.”
He might also have said, “Only then — only by writing a story — will you understand the people.” But that’s not quite true. It is also by reading or listening to those stories that we understand what happened, and why, and we begin to understand the people involved.
So go out and get a few books and read some stories. Then go fishing and learn to tell stories. Then let’s get together for some coffee, and I can tell you about that 25- inch trout and how I caught it.

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