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The Age of Memoir

May 3, 2012

The Age of Memoir

Written by Roger Thompson, Full Professor of English and Fine Arts at Virginia Military Institute (VMI)

We live in what some commentators have called the “Age of Memoir,” and over the last decade, war memoirs have become bestsellers in this new literary age.  Service members have shared their stories, passing on news and reflecting on experiences in war even as they, day in and day out, actually participated in combat.  These are memoirs from the frontline, and their aim, at least in part, has been to bring the war back home, to somehow make the war known to an American public that experienced it only from a distance.

As the conflicts wind down abroad, however, the effects of war linger, and the stories of the war continue to find a ready reading audience.  Publishers, while certainly not in a fury to track down the next great war memoir, continue to publish works by veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, indeed, narratives about the Greatest Generation have found a new market as we have all searched to learn about our roots as a military super power.  We are wrestling with war, even as our troops are coming home, and what’s telling is that we are wrestling with these conflicts despite the fact that most of us have not seen combat or served in the military.  The wars, in other words, have saturated our culture and our daily lives, and we have yet to make sense of it.  In the years ahead, that’s what we will be doing, and story-telling will prove a vital part of any attempt to adjust from war to peace.

Researchers have long known that storytelling binds communities and helps shape communal identity.  That broad body of work in sociology and folklore migrated to the realm of cognitive psychology in the 80s and 90s, and now new work by researchers demonstrates that storytelling helps connect different cognitive processes.  Psychologists like Tina Bryson, for example, argue that storytelling helps children make sense of their emotions and their world, and thus shapes not just their own identities, but the ways in which family units function.

In the last few years, such storytelling research has been applied to business, and a growing body of research has begun to examine the value of storytelling in the workplace.  A handful of psychologists, foremost among them Murray Nossel, argues that storytelling might be the key to helping a workforce function more effectively.  It builds networks and helps create purpose and atmosphere where risk in fostered in an encouraging and supportive professional environment.  We have returned, it seems, to Margaret Wheatley’s findings more than a decade ago: “The patterns of relationships and the capacities to form them are more important than tasks, functions, roles, and positions.”  Stories help form those relationships.  Indeed, they are the cornerstone of them.

Veterans have an opportunity to lead here.  As leaders in industry and government, and as parents and family members, veterans who can find a voice may find an opportunity to share their story.  Those stories change lives.  They shape cultures and organizations.  They transform a largely ignorant listening and reading audience into vested stakeholders in complex discussions about war, institutional structures and hierarchies, leadership, and growth.  They remake institutions, shift priorities, drive achievement.  Stories are at the root of the capacity for change, and when veterans speak and dare to share even a small, small truth from their wars (even the most mundane), a great shift begins within a community that is impossible to unmake.  Growth, real and organic, occurs, and an organization’s borders expand, likely in directions never before imagined.

If businesses, under President Obama’s push to encourage the hiring of veterans, are to truly benefit from the wisdom gleaned from veteran deployments, combat, and service, they need to make room for story in the workplace.  They need to make room for the powerful relationships that nurture growth and foster collaboration.  They need, in short, to learn to listen in order to encourage the types of connections that give birth to new ideas and drive unimagined innovation.  Veterans have stories to tell, and those stories (not all of them war stories) promise rewards to businesses that make room for their telling.

Roger Thompson is a Full Professor of English and Fine Arts at Virginia Military Institute (VMI).  He is an award-winning nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in numerous academic and non-academic journals.  Dr. Thompson is currently conducting several studies on continuing education in the military veteran community.

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