What It Means to Tell a Story: On Susan Sontag and Writing

Writing is a type of freedom. It allows us to choose which portions of the world to highlight and which ones we want to discard. Telling stories also forces us to create boundaries. We can’t focus on everything, can’t follow the lives of every single character, can’t describe the layer of dirt on every doorstep. Instead we decide what matters, or at the very least, we decide what matters to us.

Susan_Sontag_by_Juan_BastosWriter and activist Susan Sontag (1933-2004) had much to say on those points. Jonathan Miller once described Sontag as “probably the most intelligent woman in America,” and though the accolade continues to haunt her memory, Sontag was much more than simply intelligent. In an article for The Guardian, Suzie Mackenzie describes her as simultaneously bossy, insulting, dismissive, playful, spontaneous, and as “one of the warmest, funniest, most generous, and silliest people I have ever known.” Perhaps Sontag’s multiplicities aided her as a writer. Her writing against the Vietnam War, her critiques of American society, and her discussions of art suggests that she saw the world as a complex place. It would take some doing to unweave all of life’s intricacies.

Sontag devoted much of her writing to discussing the work that writers must do to unravel these issues. In At the Same Time, a collection of her essays and speeches, she writes:

“To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.”

Here, Sontag asserts that the way storytellers sift through that information is related to morality and ethics. Not all stories are equal. Not all stories matter. Someone needs to look at them and decide what is most vital to tell. At the same time, however, there is the terrible likelihood that by focusing on certain stories rather than others, writers are ignoring some aspects of the world. Since not all people have the opportunity to tell these stories – women and minorities are still highly underrepresented in the literary world for example – large chunks of humanity fall through the cracks.

Though these statements are all relevant for writers, they also help explain how we process any type of art and, indeed, how we process our lives and the world around us. We constantly curate our own experiences of the world, and we do much of this work subconsciously. People can only process so much information, after all, before they start making bad decisions and become unable to handle new input. It makes perfect sense that telling stories would rely on the same mechanisms.

All of this leaves storytellers with a single question: how do we make sure that the stories we tell truly are more important than those other stories we could be telling?

Maybe you’ll be able to come up with an easy answer. I certainly can’t.

—     —     —

For more on Susan Sontag, see:

 Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation: And Other Essays

Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches

Leland Poague, Conversations with Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will

—     —     —

Image Attribution: Juan Fernando Bastos, “Susan Sontag,” Gay & Lesbian Review, 2009.


18 thoughts on “What It Means to Tell a Story: On Susan Sontag and Writing

  1. This is an interesting topic, and one I’ve been giving some thought to. I’m working on the second Campbell’s Rambles book. In The Raw Truth: Campbell’s Rambles Book Two I’ll be telling what I feel are the important parts of the rest of the story. I have made the Decisions as to what to put in and what to leave out according to several reasons.

    I took Feedback from Readers of the first book. I Blog, and gage reactions from those Followers as well.

    I Think about what I wanted to say but didn’t and why. Then I add all that Together, and Write.

    I hope I fill in the cracks with Blogging.

    I don’t think we can ever write it all!

    Just like our TBR (To Be Read) List, our TBW (To Be Written) List is long and long.

    I say again…

    “We never get it done. We never get it right. If we’re lucky We Just Get It!”


    Nice Post!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The book I am publishing now is different than the other I wrote. It will be told from the Guid Dog’s point of view. It is to be called, Bubba Tails From the Puppy Nursery From The Seeing Eye. It began last summer as a blog series. I have now decided to publish as a book. I’m hopeful that it will be out around Mother’s Day, but of course not sure. I’ll be publishing the follow up book to my first, Campbell’s Rambles: How a Seeing Eye Dog Retrieved My Life, on the blog as a serial. It is called, The Raw Truth: Book Two. I almost have the revised Prologue, which I’ve learned should in this case be called a “Forword” and first three chapters. Once I’ve them out the book will come in two or three chapters at a time. I do not have a release schedule. Every time I try and make a schedule to release some tech thing messes me up. So I figure I’ll do better just saying nothing about how often it will release, and maybe it can go out regularly. LOL!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s an interesting one… As it happens, it isn’t an issue I tend to bother about all that much because the story I tell is the one that won’t leave me alone. It’s the story that keeps shouting to be let out. Isn’t that the same with most writers?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think most of us certainly tell the stories that sing to us. I suppose I am always concerned about whatever impact, however small, my writing has on other people. (I probably think too much about how the world could be a better place. And I probably worry that I’m not doing enough to get it there.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that goes to show just what a nice human being you are – while I go to some lengths to craft my story so it is entertaining and readable, my initial audience is myself – to stop it drilling holes in my brain.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. All of this leaves storytellers with a single question: how do we make sure that the stories we tell truly are more important than those other stories we could be telling?

    I think this is uniquely personal and depends on who you are, your passions, what grabs you and sticks, especially if you’re writing fiction. I don’t think the writer necessary creates the story: the story comes to the writer, floats into her consciousness and hangs there until it finds its way onto the page.

    But that’s just me. For journalists, essayists, and non-fiction writers it may be an entirely different thing. It may involve choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you are right in that what we write about reflects our own interests, the way we think, the way we view life and the universe, and everything related. I’ll admit that I still struggle with the responsibility for whatever narratives I tell, but sometimes it is okay for me to overthink these things a little.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A great post Kristen. There are always so many ideas, so many ways to choose, build and develop a story to tell. That is the beauty and the terror of being a writer – knowing you’ll probably get it wrong but going ahead anyway with the story that feels right to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a great post. Storytelling is the root of writing, well my writing. It is important, as it leaves the reader grounded in wisdom. It may be small, but it is important. Thank you, Kristen.

    Liked by 1 person

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