Friday, December 13, 2013


This post isn’t about the Common Core or rubrics or other pedagogical concerns. It’s about storytelling, which, when it comes right down to it, is what all great writing should be—even nonfiction.

Stubby, on display at the Smithsonian Institution
This past year I’ve had the good fortune to become an hiStoryteller twice on the same topic. My unusual escort has made the journey pure pleasure, trotting forward on four feet as he’s led me back to 1917, across the Atlantic, through the Great War, and home again. As with so many topics, accident and good fortune led me to discover Stubby, a stray dog smuggled with American troops to France who returned to the United States and became a post-war icon. I stumbled across him while doing photo research for Unraveling Freedom, another book set during World War I. Even though I was not a dog person, I could not get this intrepid creature out of my mind, and that meant only one thing: I was destined to write about him. More than that, I was, apparently, destined to write about him twice.

First I researched and wrote about Stubby the War Dog for young people and then, at the request of my publisher, I embarked on another telling of his tale, this time for adult readers. The National Geographic Society will publish both books next May.

I’ve learned a lot about storytelling from these projects. My subject left behind an historical record riddled with contradictions, omissions, and hyperbole. Just sorting out the narrative was a job. Figuring out how to share it with two very different audiences was a challenge, as well. Keeping the story fresh became a particular concern. I knew I needed to stay in love with the topic for the readers to love it, but, after writing the first book, I feared I would find myself trapped in a sort of Groundhog Day nightmare for the second one.

I follow a definite mental and physical trajectory when writing a book. Part of the challenge is pacing myself so that I don’t run out of stamina or enthusiasm before the project’s completion. Once a book is done, there is a natural let-down that shares kinship with the postpartum feelings of childbirth. Exhaustion. Relief. Satisfaction. Plus a sense of aimlessness after losing the connection to a goal long-in-the-making and now achieved. No mother would want to go right back into labor, and no one ever has to give birth to the same baby twice. Yet there I was, facing the same topic again.

It turned out that my greatest challenge was overcoming the sense of panic that gripped me at that prospect. Once I’d slain the apparition of repetition, I found myself liberated to write in new ways, from simple things such as the freedom to construct complicated sentences and use big words to the rewards of writing for an audience that could appreciate a more sophisticated rendering of the history. I fell in love with my subject all over again, generating the energy and motivation required to explore Stubby’s story along new research and writing avenues.

Sometimes I think we forget that writing, at its best, is storytelling. Writers such as those at I.N.K. don’t park their passions at their office doors; they infuse their work with them, and that’s why such incredible books emerge from their fingertips. Nothing but the facts, true, but the facts can truly inspire—sometimes even twice—when we write from our hearts as well as from our heads.

In the wake of standards, and testing, and benchmarks it can be hard to remember that the best reading, the best writing, the best teaching, and the best learning come when we are most inspired. My new year’s wish for all is this: May writers, educators, and students alike be allowed to fall in love with facts through wonderful, wonderful storytelling.


Sue Macy said...

Well said, Ann. Congratulations on getting both Stubbys done. I look forward to reading them.

Jennifer Emmett said...

This story certainly has captured the imagination of the staff at National Geographic! Stubby has quite a fan club. And so does his storyteller.