The Importance of Narrative

Reading the outstanding Atlantic magazine recently, I came across an article by James Fallows that focused on the revival efforts of small cities. Although Fallows had a number of take-home points and examples, I honed in on one that rang true to me: the stories we tell ourselves matter. These stories matter for our own lives. New psychological approaches highlight how important autobiographical narratives are for shaping our personalities—even that these narratives are our personality.

Well take that to the community level, then. The narratives that we form as neighbors, neighborhoods, as cities, they all come together to actually define the personality of an urban area. And that means that a good story, a powerful narrative of progress and potential, can be self-fulfilling.

I think these are good lessons to keep in mind for any urban area. But perhaps it’s most important for those struggling to redefine their place in the new century and to cope with legacy challenges.

Fallows was visiting Eastport, Maine, a town of only 1500. He describes the people as “telling their own success story, as part of willing it to come true.” The residents were engaged throughout the town—the newspaper editor pulls tickets at the play—and defined largely by their optimism and the drive to achieve their goals.

Importantly, the town is moving forward, not longing for the good ol’ days. Although they are continuing to use their natural strengths and resources, like a deep harbor, the residents are moving with the economic tide as well. Farmed salmon are replacing overfished stocks. The European demand for low-carbon fuels is driving a huge export in natural charcoal. New technologies allow Eastport to capture energy from the daily tides in and out of the harbor. They are a port town, and that will never change. But the residents have found ways to capitalize on those resources in innovative ways.

Fallows returns to this point about narrative. The cynic could ask: Can it possibly matter? With ever-increasing globalization, even local economies are largely defined by supply and demand around the world. Cities rise and fall and that cannot be stopped by a cheerful smile. Of course, that’s all true.

However, Fallows writes, “the story [Eastport] is telling itself, that it is poised for success, makes that success more likely.” The narrative shapes the character of the town even before the ending is known. “This faith also improves life today, no matter where it leads, or doesn’t, tomorrow.” Would you rather live in a dreary city that is hopelessly losing itself to uncontrollable economic forces? Or a scrappy town, pushing innovative ways to move forward in the 21st century. I know I’d chose the latter.

Even the cynic would have a hard time arguing with Fallows: “In practical terms, a belief that you can shape your fate is more useful than a belief that you cannot.” Let’s tell ourselves the good story. Let’s expound our optimistic, but grounded, narrative of improvement. Let’s make today better, and tomorrow’s improvement more likely. Stories matter. They matter to us, and to our cities. Might as well choose the one with a happy ending.