Two Truths are Better than One

by Charlie Mintz on 12/30/2013

  

A great story is like a hidden fossil -- except instead of buried in the earth, stories are buried in people. Like an archaeologist, the interviewer must map out where to search, determine the outlines of the story, and ever-so-carefully bring it into the light. Retrieving just one story -- intact, with all its delicate edges preserved -- is the task of an expert. But the truly exceptional storytellers have an extra sense. They can recognize when the fossil they're extracting is not the only one. They know when to expand the operation, and when to dig deep.

 

That's what we're going to explore today: how do you develop the ability to get the whole story? How can you sense when a little more probing can yield an entirely new layer of astonishment? We'll be answering that question by looking at a recent story from This American Life called My Ames is True, told by the eminent Michael Lewis.

 

The story is about a man named Emir Kamenica. A refugee from from Bosnia, Emir comes to America as a young boy. The precocious immigrant is stuck in a low-performing school -- until something incredible happens. As he tells the story, a plagiarized essay from an obscure book so impresses his substitute teacher that she immediately sets out to get him into a top-notch private school. From there, he attends Harvard and goes on to a distinguished career as an economist. All because of a fluke.

 

So that's the first half of the story. Emir chalks it up to luck, but Michael Lewis and the producers at This American Life sensed there was more to the story.

 

* SPOILER ALERT *

 

So they decided to bring another perspective into the mix.

 

After telling the audience that Emir unsuccessfully failed to track down his teacher, Lewis asks wryly, what was he going to do, hire a private eye? Then we hear: "My name is Irving Botwinick. And my business is called Serving by Irving." Irving leads us to the substitute teacher, Ms. Ames, and what she reveals changes everything.

 

Specifically, she contradicts the most important part of Emir’s story. As he tells it, a plagiarized essay attracted her notice, and forever altered the course of his life. But Ms. Ames says that's just not what happened. She'd always had her eye on him. He was the most brilliant student she'd ever seen. He was going to succeed no matter what -- not due to luck, but talent. It’s a very different story indeed.

 

Bringing a new perspective takes this story to a new level. Luck was crucial in Emir’s version of the story but it wasn’t crucial in Ms. Ames’. The disparity between their perspectives forces the producers to probe more deeply, and a new question emerges: “How does our basic stance toward the world influence the stories we tell about ourselves?” They wouldn’t have gotten to that question without the second perspective.

 

In retrospect, it seems simple to go deeper into a story through a new perspective. But often, we radio producers fail to notice when this is a good move. I’ve produced stories told entirely from one point of view before. Sometimes that’s justified. Often the protagonist’s truth -- not objective truth -- is what’s most important.

 

But how did the staff of This American Life know, in this instance, to look for another perspective? Let’s study a couple signs that an observant archaeologist of story will notice in cases like this.

 

1) An empirical claim. Emir says his success in life is directly due to the intervention of one substitute teacher. The benefit of such a statement, in the context of a story, is that it can be assessed. Is it true? Storytellers, take note, your subject may not be the best authority on his or her own life.

 

2) A character who knows something the main character doesn’t. Emir can only guess the motivations of his substitute teacher. Therefore, a vital piece of information is inaccessible to him, and, by extension, the listener. Filling this absence practically demands the reporter seek a new interviewee.

 

Once you, as a radio producer, have mapped your site, carefully plucked the bones from the ground, and made sure there’s nothing left to dig up -- now you have to assemble the darn things and tell us what they mean.

 

The last act of the story involves a conversation between Emir and Ms. Ames. It’s fascinating, because we wonder how his version of events will stand up to her very different account. What we find is that Emir’s life story is remarkably resilient. He resists Ms. Ames’s version of events, standing by his own memory, and within 24 hours, he’s practically forgotten that a challenge existed at all.

 

As the story wraps up, Michael Lewis draws a conclusion from Emir's persistent belief in luck: it makes him happier. Feeling lucky and indebted to others helps us appreciate what we have. It's a cliche, of course, but because we've arrived at this conclusion through such an unusual path, we buy it. I do at least. And the only way we could have gotten here is through the work of unusually insightful archaeologists of story. Most radio producers would have been content with Emir's narrative. This American Life's producers were sensitive however, to the clues that something bigger lay buried beneath the earth.

 

My Ames is True

Produced by Michael Lewis at This American Life in 2013

34 minutes (This portion of the story starts at 13:15)

 

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