What I Shared Today With My UNC Chapel Hill StudentsShare
On the power of stories to help us recognize our common humanity, narrow the distance between self and other, and wrest meaning from tragedy.
Today was the first time I met with my students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after the tragic shooting deaths on Tuesday in this university town.
The deceased: Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Barakat was a second-year student in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Dentistry. His wife Yusor, a North Carolina State University graduate, was planning to enter the UNC School of Dentistry in the fall. Razan was a student at N.C. State in nearby Raleigh.
I have been a visiting lecturer at UNC Chapel Hill since 2008, teaching in the Writing for Screen and Stage program within the Communication Studies Department. The class I am teaching this semester – History of American Screenwriting – has 25 students. They are a wonderful group of young women and men. Smart, enthusiastic, curious, energetic.
Today’s session: A discussion of this week’s movie Double Indemnity, our conversation guided by each of the student’s weekly research papers which we go through together in class. The learning that goes on in our Thursday meetings is remarkable, lively sessions filled with all sorts of insights, conjecture, and analysis.
Late last night, I felt compelled to say something to my students about this act of senseless violence which has shocked the university and our community of Chapel Hill. Here is what I shared:
Before we start class today, I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about the tragic events of Tuesday afternoon… the shooting deaths of three young people here in Chapel Hill.
There are no words.
In the immediacy of this violence, there are no words to create any sort of context within which we can make sense of what transpired.
So we hug our friends… We reach out to our families… We attend vigils for the victims… We offer silent benedictions on their behalf.
These are right and good things to do.
But in the bigger picture, there are words. Words which each of us… You and I… Can use.
As writers. Screenwriters. TV writers. Playwrights. Novelists. Poets. Journalists.
We can use words to write… Stories.
What can stories do?
In stories, we can create characters… Who put a human face on others… On The Other. People whose skin color is different than ours. Whose religion is different. Whose sexual orientation is different. Whose socioeconomic and cultural background is different. Whose behaviors, language, clothes, and habits are different.
We can tell stories that convey the humanity we all share. We can shrink the emotional and psychological distance between… This person… and that person.
With stories, we can create a sense of personal identification. So instead of looking at Them as an It… They become You. With more stories, You becomes We. And with even more stories, We becomes Us.
With stories, we can transform The Other… Into a Brother… or a Sister.
We can speak the one undeniable, unalterable truth. That we all exist on this speck of earth… Amidst an unfathomably vast universe… Each of our lifespans a relative nanosecond.
Amidst the awesome mystery of that existence… of life itself… The differences between us lie merely on the surface. The similarities go deep under the skin and are essential to who we are as people.
Where some would dehumanize others… We can write stories that humanize them.
Telling stories is not a panacea. Violence will never go away. Evil will always have its place.
But if we write stories… To expose injustice… to celebrate diversity… To explore the unknown… to dimensionalize what is known… To engage our fears… to inspire our hopes… And always in some way to verbalize and visualize our common humanity…
Perhaps next time… One human being won’t pull the trigger on another human being. One human being instead of raising a fist will offer a handshake. Acknowledging that this is a fellow traveler on a journey we are all taking… A journey called Life.
Today words are hard to come by… As we try to offer prayers of support to the victims’ families and friends… And struggle to put together simple sentences to make sense of this tragedy.
But over time, words will come. As storytellers, I encourage you to embrace this power we have as writers… Use your words.
Use your words to tell stories. Stories that make us laugh… make us cry… Make us angry… make us scared… Make us wonder… make us think… But always make us realize…
The humanity we all share.
Writers, we can’t control the violent acts of others. But we can write. Words have power when shaped into stories. Let’s re-commit ourselves today to write stories worth reading… stories worth hearing… stories worth watching.
Do it for young people everywhere.
Do it for Deah, Yusor, and Razan.
Do it for humanity.
Do it for the good of your soul.
Deah, along with other UNC Dental School students, created Project: Refugee Smiles – The Syrian Dental Relief Fund. If you wish to do something beyond using your words, you can use your money to support this worthy cause in honor of Deah, his wife and sister-in-law.
Scott Myers is a screenwriter and award winning screenwriting instructor and blogger. This post originally appeared at Go Into the Story.
Featured image from Our Three Winners, taken at the vigil held at UNC on February 11, 2015.