TED Talks provide viewers with fascinating insights into a number of scientific, artistic, and social fields. However, some of the most fascinating sessions available are those hosted by writers of fiction or poetry, because they reach into the core of what it is to be human. As Jonathan Gottschall asserts in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, we are so intertwined with the processes of the fictive narrative that our brains devote our sleeping hours to crafting them in the form of dreams. In the following article, we’ll offer five of the best TED sessions by writers and poets that lead to a deeper understanding of our larger, human narrative.
1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Danger of a Single Story
A celebrated Nigerian author, Adichie speaks about the risk of essentializing individuals or entire cultures based on a single narrative concept. She frames her points by introducing the audience to her childhood literary experience, in which she read only Western European children’s stories. As a consequence, all the characters in her early writing were white. They ate, drank, spoke, and behaved exactly as the children in the stories she read did. She did not understand until later that African characters could exist in literature. Her TED talk expands this to how we view and interact with other cultures and their contexts, rendering anthropological what is initially a lecture about literature.
2. Mac Barnett on Why a Good Book is a Secret Door
As children, we undergo a process through which we learn to distinguish fantasy from reality. But there is, for a charmed period, a space in which we accept Coleridge’s willful suspension of disbelief. It is a space in which we can accept the propositions of tangible reality as true while also believing the larger truths that are presented in the fictive medium of story. Barnett’s TED talk centers on this idea as he discusses his work with the 826 Writer’s Tutoring Workshop locations in California. The concept of metafiction comes to life in the Pirate Supply Store, which fronts the location in San Francisco and the Time Traveler’s emporium in LA. Here, children actively seek their tutoring appointments by accessing a secret door in a fictional context with concrete reality.
3. Chinaka Hodge and a Poetic Autopsy of 2016
With the power of the spoken word, Hodge peers into the horror and heroism of 2016 through the lens of feminism. Her TED presentation is titled “What Will You Tell Your Daughters About 2016?” This powerful piece presents women as humans, rather than possessions or matrices in which the actions of men are embedded. It breaks with a long tradition of portraying the events of history as a universally masculine medium. While it is a poem, a piece of performative art, it instructs the audience through questions, asks in the voice of unborn daughters what happened; how did events unfold; and what actions did each woman personally witness or take for themselves and future generations.
4. Lunch Lady Heroism with Jarrett J. Krosoczka
This brief TED lecture by children’s author Jarrett Krosoczka highlights the everyday heroism of those who feed our children at school. Inspired by meeting his own childhood lunch lady as an adult, he created a series of graphic novels in which the main characters—our often-unsung heroes—battle what is amiss in the world in creative and unique ways, always ending with a hefty serving of Justice. His work expanded into a collaborative creative day in which cafeteria staff around the country receive a creative ‘thank you’ from the communities of young children they support and serve five days each week.
5. Lisa Bu and How Books Can Open Your Mind
Chinese author Lisa Bu delivers a passionate and beautiful TED lecture about the power of reading during her upbringing in a traditional Chinese household. When she came to America, she voraciously consumed literature, both what was not available in her country of origin and, with new understanding, that which was. She goes on to explore life, literature, and scholarly subjects through the practice of comparative reading, which sets two similar narratives against each other in order to produce new insights.
We experience our lives and the physical world through our senses. These experiences do not come pre-formatted in a narrative form, but are arranged by our brains to conform to the Story. This is memory. This is dream. This is art or history or literature. Anyone interested in a better understanding of the anthropological and sociological context of creation will deeply enjoy these and other TED Talks by fiction writers and poets.