What Oprah Knows For Sure About the Power of Storytelling
Whether you were born to write and have a talent for it or you just want to articulate what matters to you, I know for sure: There is power and meaning in everybody's story.
I recently read an unlikely memoir, Writing My Wrongs. It's the story of Shaka Senghor, a former prison inmate who took to writing while serving 19 years, seven of them in solitary confinement.
My first glance at the person on the book's cover—a dreadlocked, tattooed, heavyset black male—left me skeptical. Full of judgment. Why should I be interested in the story of a murderer?
But as his words unfolded, so did my understanding—of what it means to fall short, to go astray, to lose your way.
I could see the exact moment he lost faith in the future: the day he came home from school, a 9-year-old boy with an A+ on a test, and his mother—instead of being ecstatic and showering him with praise to match his joy—threw a pot at him so furiously, it cracked the tiles on the kitchen wall behind him.
To this day, at 43, he still doesn't know why she did it. "My mom just had issues, a lot of anger for the way things were."
I was so moved by Shaka's experiences, I invited him to tape a Super Soul Sunday, which will air this fall. Our conversation was one of the best I've ever had—not just in my career, but in my life.
His story touched my soul. We talked for two and a half hours, for a show that will have to be edited down to 42 minutes. He surprised himself with ahas and tears. Everyone within earshot was deeply moved.
At one point I saw one of the cameramen wiping his eyes. My executive producer, Tara Montgomery, reached for yet another tissue after I asked Shaka, "But weren't you the smart one who wanted to be a doctor before you claimed the street life at 14? Why did you want to be a doctor?"
He paused for 23 seconds—an eternity in TV time—before answering. I could tell it was the first time he'd really thought about it.
"My mother was always nice when she took me to the doctor." He paused again. His eyes welled. "I guess I imagined if I became a doctor, she would be nice to me."
And so through the power of words, this man's humanity touches my own and helps me understand what another brilliant storyteller, the lawyer Bryan Stevenson, says in his eye-opening memoir, Just Mercy: "Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."
Reading Shaka's book opened my heart space and led me to Bryan's tale of justice and redemption. "We all need mercy, we all need justice, and—perhaps—we all need some measure of unmerited grace," he says.
I finished Bryan's book and wondered, What more can I do to bring mercy, justice, and grace into this world? That's the power of words—of a story told so well, you're enlarged by its meaning.