Prolific and respected writer Susan Orlean, a University of Michigan alum, spoke this spring at the English Department’s graduation event. Here’s an excerpt from her speech about storytelling in the Twitter age:
“I think the basic unit of humankind is the story. It’s how we learn and how we pass along to each other the idea of who we are. We connect the dots, and then we have the impulse to tell other people the story of how we connected the dots. That’s what it is to be human.
There’s never been a bigger appetite for that humanity. Facebook wouldn’t have 900 million users and Twitter 300 million if we didn’t want to hear each other’s stories, even if those stories sometimes seem a bit slight. I remember the first time I posted what I like to call a sandwich tweet. If I can remember the text exactly, it was: “Had ham on rye for lunch”. The minute I hit the “post” button I had that sick feeling in my gut. I had finally hit bottom; I had posted a sandwich tweet.
While I fumbled to delete it, I realized I’d already gotten several replies. “Love ham on rye!” “Eating tuna today”. Was my tweet Shakespeare? Faulkner? David Foster Wallace? Of course not, but it was connection; it was a story told and received and commented upon and perhaps even leaving an impact. Maybe it inspired someone else to have ham on rye for lunch. Maybe it was just, as I believe, another thread in the ever growing fabric of stories that surround us and define us.
I read great stories when I was here as an English major. I read volume after volume of Faulkner, guided by the amazing Joseph Blotner. I read James Joyce and Henry James and Hemingway. I saw — I felt — just how powerful stories can be. I think I left here utterly convinced that anything was a great story as long as I cared about it deeply and wanted just as deeply to tell that story to someone else. And that impulse has never let me down. Loving language, loving words, and most of all loving stories and storytelling will be among the few loves in your life that will never break your heart, that will never let you down, and that will never change.”