There are few facets of the Yale Daily News that I despise more than the neutral fact, the simple sentence capstone to nearly every news article this paper publishes. Now, before I get excommunicated from the YDN, let me say: I have nothing against the reporters who write these neutral facts, the editors who edit them or the publishers who publish them. This isn’t personal; this is about a sentence.
The neutral fact — often a date, statistic or some similar nugget of information — purports to ground the article and its reporting in objectivity. It urges us to embrace the notion that the story was written, as opposed to the fact that somebody wrote it. It might seem trivial to point out, but for every word, for every quote and for every fact that makes it into an article, there are infinitely more that don’t.
Imagining facts to be dots, we might picture stories — whether in print, in conversation or simply in thought — as pointillist paintings, canvasses filled purely with individual truths. And yet, it is our own eye that constructs the greater picture, that connects the dots and makes sense of the larger whole. Stories are no more these dots than the lines we use to connect them. In fact, zoom in on a single dot — a solitary, objective fact — and you’ll find lines, connections and subjective interpretations all the way down.
In the stories we tell each other, those we tell ourselves and even those that a select, turgid few scribble in Opinion sections, we’d like to think that we can at least get the “who,” “where,” “when” and “what” right, right? But only the “why” — our subjective, constructed explanation for the world around us — can hold everything together and can make the random factual dots one larger whole.
In fact, without the “why,” we hardly have a grasp on “who,” “where,” “when” or “what” at all. Only by acknowledging the subjective interpretations of the stories we tell can we even begin to approach something we can call “truth.”
In sum, there is no such thing as a neutral, objective fact. But, as you may have sensed by now, this isn’t really about the neutral fact after all. It’s about something much more important.
By now, you’re probably sick of all this postmodern, relativist rambling, so let me tide you over with a cold hard fact: Kurt Vonnegut was an author and satirist. That’s a fact, look it up.
As part of his master’s thesis, Vonnegut developed a concept he called “the universal shapes of stories.” His master’s advisory committee unanimously rejected his thesis, but the idea lives on — at least for me. In 2004, three years before his death, he gave a hilarious and heartwarming lecture on the subject. There’s a video of it; I watch it whenever I’m sad.
Vonnegut begins by drawing two axes on a chalkboard. The horizontal axis is time. The vertical one, he explains, goes from bad fortune to good fortune. He starts with a simple example he calls “man in a hole.” It begins above the horizontal axis; then, something terrible happens, and it dips down below. The character redeems herself and ends slightly higher than she began. He continues mapping out these archetypal narratives, from “boy meets girl” to the classic redemption story, noting just how easy it is to boil them down to a line on a graph.
That is, until he turns to Hamlet. And suddenly, graphing a line isn’t so easy. He walks through Hamlet’s story — from the appearance of his “father’s ghost” to the staging of the play to the death of Polonius to Hamlet’s death (spoiler alert!). But these developments aren’t so easily classified as fortune or misfortune. And according to Vonnegut, that’s exactly what makes it so great: “We are so seldom told the truth … we don’t know enough about life to know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”
Instead, we pretend to know what in our lives is good or bad. We pretend to know the “who,” “where,” “when” or “what.” All we do is pretend.
Look back on your time here. Try and recount it all. That’s right, all of it. And stick to the fundamentals. The first thing you realize is that you need to find somewhere to start. So, you start at the beginning, typing away. You get a few words in and realize you skipped something, so you go back. You start again. You realize that telling it all is never going to be possible, so you make some cuts. So it goes. You get to the end, all those hard facts and sequences intact. But, there’s something missing.
Now, do it again, and this time, prioritize the subjective, personal “why.” The story looks different. You swap “I went out all five nights of camp Yale” with “I tried to fit in.” You swap “I dropped Math 120” with “I was afraid to fail.” You swap out the simple, objective descriptors with something more real. You rewrite your transcript, your resume, your life not in terms of categories and classes but in terms of intent, experience and meaning. You embrace the subjective, and, along the way, find something that feels real.
Behind every story is something true. Maybe it’s something true about the subject or maybe about the storyteller, but there’s truth buried in there nonetheless. And that icky, tight-in-the-chest feeling of poking at something true, something that — even if just for now — feels without a doubt right, is why we’re here in the first place. Cherish the “why,” the smudges between the dots, the stories we use to make sense of it all. Cherish them because they’re all we have.
ERIC KREBS is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column generally runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com .