Friday, March 13, 2009

More Than Facts

In the weeks before the election, I volunteered at a phone bank for Obama. I’m from Boston and, coming from a very blue state, we had mostly hounded people in New Hampshire. But on Election Day, Virginia seemed to be in play and our assignment, at least through lunchtime, was to contact people in Richmond to make sure they were going to the polls.

I was given a list of names and it became clear very quickly that I was calling an urban, African American district. And because it was midmorning I ended up talking to a lot of older people. I’d identified myself as being from the Obama campaign and would start the conversation by apologetically saying that they must been getting a lot of calls from people like me. Yes, they’d say, but it’s no problem at all. Or, you’re the fourth call today, isn’t that something? Or, yes, thank you for your work. (Very different than New Hampshire.)

“Have you had a chance to vote today?” I’d ask. “Yes, ma’am,” they’d answer. They all had, despite the fact that polls would still be open for hours and hours. And because it felt like an important moment for them and me, I found myself prolonging the conversation-- asking them how long the lines were, telling them that I heard it was a cold, cold morning (this from a Boston girl!). “Yes ma’am, it was,” one woman said to me, “but we all stood there patiently in the rain, even the young ones, until it was our time.” I didn’t ask, but I just knew that lady got dressed up to go and vote that day.

Then there was the couple who got to the polls at 6:30 a.m. and the line was so long that they went to breakfast and walked around until the crowd died down. I said, as politely as I could, that their voter information revealed they were of retirement age, why didn’t they wait until a more reasonable hour. “We were so excited we couldn’t wait,” the woman replied. “We had been awake since five.”

That morning was a total gift. It wasn’t as if I didn’t realize that this election was triumphant and moving beyond words for those who experienced massive prejudice and a thousand cuts a day for a lifetime. I already knew that fact, I understood that fact, but that day I got a glimpse of it on a whole different level. It went from my brain to my gut. As Heinlein would say, I grokked.

When we read about people in history or different cultures or about some amazing bit of science, we all too often just read the facts. Or write them. As nonfiction authors, how do we convey something in all its dimensions—go for the grok response? Yeah, yeah, I know--show don’t tell. Or if you are gonna tell, tell stories so readers can identify. As Dorothy Patent said in her March 11 blog, choose deep, rich subjects that pull from many areas of knowledge and feeling. But is there something else we need to make a bunch of facts equal more than the sum of their parts?

10 comments:

Jeannine said...

Susan, you just did it for me. I think it was the dialogue -- the difference in your vocab and tone than those of who you talked to, but the obvious way you connected. What a wonderful true story. Thank you for making my heart skip! (not a Heinlem person, but I'll ask my husband about grokking!) Jeannine Atkins

ReadingTub said...

This is fabric of history. It's the stories and how we tell them. Your timing is exquisite, too, as I'm trying to find the words for a review of The Hemingses of Monticello. Your story crystalized my thoughts.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Wow, you guys certainly make my day.

Susan E. Goodman said...

oops, made my day

Charlotte said...

Thanks from me too. sniff.

steve jenkins said...

Thanks for sharing that. My own experience of the election (I was one of those people who checked the polls three times a day for a few months) was greatly enriched by sharing the event with my ten-year-old son. He was, in his own way, aware of context: the historical significance of this election, the history of racism in America, the stakes of this particular election at this particular time, but his innocence, enthusiasm and total lack of cynicism helped me see the whole process in a different way.

Gwendolyn Hooks said...

Passion and immediacy. I’m working on a project that involves a group of artists who painted together in the 30s. I felt passion for their story, but it wasn’t until I attended a play about their lives that I felt their true personalities. Somehow their struggles and trumphs came to life on the stage. I just hope I can convey that on the page.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Passion and immediacy--Gwendolyn, that really sums it up. Steve, you know one of the odd things about the election for me is that on one hand I had the experience with older African Americans that I described before. Yet my husband and I were some of the older people volunteering at the phone bank. We had both lived through King's assassination, demos, etc., and if you had asked either one of us a couple years ago if we thought there would be a black president in our life times... So we ended up having very different feelings at the Election party than the 20 and 30-year old people who worked on the campaign with us and felt victorious but without the same historical perspective. It was this strange day with three degrees of generational and experiencial difference.

KateMessner said...

Thanks for this post, Susan~

I was teaching on Election Day, but my daughter and I spent the night before making calls for Obama in Pennsylvania and had a very similar experience, speaking with urban voters there. Their anticipation for morning was palpable even from many miles away. Thanks for bringing back that memory and adding to it so vividly.

Jane Sutcliffe said...

Susan, what a wonderful experience for you! I'm currently working on an early reader bio of Obama for Lerner, and I'm moved by the same thing: the quiet pride of people who know they are seeing history in the making. Thank you for sharing your experiences so beautifully.