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What Story do You Want to Tell? Learning Narrative Storytelling through Podcasting

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a two-part column.

It was 13 manuscript pages, beautifully—sometimes vexingly—composed, with strange syntax and long sentences with phonetic spelling. Titled “In which I declare what happened to the soul of Queen Isabel de Borbón,” encountering this manuscript jolted me from a transcription haze. Sitting in the cold, quiet reading room of El Escorial, the monastery-palace built by Spanish King Philip II in the 16th century, I began to read the gripping account. I wasn’t sure exactly where it would fit into my dissertation project, but I knew immediately this manuscript recounted a remarkable story.

This document tells of a miraculous vision of Purgatory, as experienced by a Franciscan abbess named Sor María de Jesús. In the village of Ágreda in northwestern Spain, the nun saw the floor beneath her crack and part to reveal a subterranean chasm filled with the suffering souls and licking flames of Purgatory. The soul of Isabel de Borbón, queen of the Spanish monarquía, emerged to speak with Sor María. This vivid account is at the center of my episode of Reverb Effecta podcast by the University of Michigan Department of History.

When selected as the new season producer and host for Reverb Effect, I felt a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I was elated. The podcast’s mission to explore “how the past reverberates in the present” for a general audience reflects a deep commitment to public engagement and narrative storytelling that underpins what I believe to be our obligation as historians: to teach and critically engage with others. On the other hand, I felt uncertainty. The gig required that I not only oversee a season of episodes by my colleagues, but that I write and produce my own episode emerging from my dissertation. Doubt crept in: How could I make a Spanish nun in the 1630s relevant to a podcast listener today? Who would care?

Yet I quickly realized that this was how nearly every historian who worked with me on an episode was feeling. I was asking the wrong questions. The right question, my refrain to each episode producer as we work on scripts, has turned out to be: What story do you want to tell? 

Once my mindset shifted from “who will care?” to “what’s the story?” the episode—and its narrative possibilities—began to unfold. Instead of putting pressure on my research to be relevant and seem interesting, I focused on curiosity and what drew me to this project in the first place. How might I explain my findings and speculations to a friend, a family member, an undergraduate student, or even on a first date? The answer: I was telling a story about how women in another time understood the world and the afterlife, and how they shared and developed this knowledge.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History