stories and when to tell them

My mind has changed since I started working at a newspaper.

It’s pretty cool that we can grow and expand and alter our ways of thinking, even after we’ve spent so many years digging our thoughts into the trenches of our minds.

I know that this thing about life is certain and that I feel this way about it. … Oh, shit, never mind.

I’ve started to sense this nagging in my thoughts, as they race into and out of the pathways of new and old — write this down, they say. Record this.

So: Here’s what’s happening.

I know less than I’ve ever known before. I work at a newspaper. I see the news firsthand. We’re not a daily newspaper, so we write a lot of stories that aren’t necessarily timely. But, still. A lot of stories. I read and edit these stories. I write them. I work with people who do this too.

I have always loved stories. That’s my thing, ya know. I pause, sit back, and breathe deeply into the words Oh, I just love other peoples’ stories. I never really thought through the implications of that statement. I love stories and I want to do something with them. People tell me their stories. And, suddenly, I am responsible. I am the most powerful and most incompetent person in the world. How do you tell someone else’s story?

A big Charleston story right now: Walter Scott. Our small office hums with social media updates, phone calls, and our busy, busy (and only) news reporter. He does a damn good job of telling peoples’ stories. As I plug away at updating Calendar entries, I hear him answering the phone, voice steady, as he asks questions I don’t think I’d be brave enough to ask. We’re both doing different kinds of story-telling, and I’ve started to reflect on the hierarchy of this practice.

That’s where my thoughts have focused: Is one story more important than another? I’ve always known the answer.

It’s a resounding yes.

Walter Scott’s story is important, and it will transcend his individual life, because it stands for the stories of so many other lives. It’s as simple as that. His story is more important than the movie review I wrote. But then, you have to keep going. Is his story more important than the fundraiser being held to support the young boy dying of cancer? Seriously — try answering that. Shitty, right?

It happens to me during the day, when I’m living my life, not even thinking about anyone else. I roll my window down and hand my laundry quarters to the homeless vet on the side of the road. I see the car behind me do the same thing, but with actual cash. I text my mom, “I started a chain of kindness!”

And then, I get frustrated when the sundress-clad girl bikes in front of me, sans helmet, blonde hair blowing in the wind. Dumb bitch. And what, now, she’s less important than the guy I gave money to? What do I really know about either one? One made me feel good about myself and one is slowing down my commute.

Life is endlessly more complicated than you ever imagine it could be. You can say “life’s messy” and “gosh, guess that’s life” all you want, but you’ll still never really know. You still get hit, hard. All the fuckin’ time.

When I was in college a senior lacrosse player was murdered by her boyfriend. Several people committed suicide — one jumped in front of a train. A few people died from drug overdoses. So, go ahead, pick one. Which is the best story?

Or am I going about this the wrong way? What about all the good things that happened? The protests in support of raising workers’ wages? The re-instatement of a wrongfully fired president? The awareness awareness awareness campaigns?

It’s different now. In college I watched other people tell these stories. I could judge how they told them. I could stomp my foot and say, tell them all the same! Now, I know. You can’t.

I cannot tell Joe’s story, no matter how many times he calls me to say that his company is stealing money from employees (yes, this happens every week or so). Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t. I write about events around town. It’s just not my story to tell. And maybe it’s not even a story.

The best example I can give of how to tell if a story is a story  — at least, how I think you can tell — is to look at a hypothetical person. She’s a world traveler, this hypothetical person. She surfs. She has a large family and they do a lot of fun things together. She’s very smart and can speak several languages. She’s beautiful, but in a striking way that makes you wonder what melding of ethnicities formed her lovely features.

Oh yeah, and she’s boring as shit.

That’s it. Not a story.

The number of drafts I have for this blog should tell me that I have a lot to say and even more to delete. I like to think that with age I have become a better listener. Talk less and listen more. I know that for sure. Let someone else speak.

My sister and I share a lot of stories because we share so many of our experiences. Sometimes, something happens to me, and I want to tell the world. I like to use my hands, and make faces, and punch line the shit out of whatever it is I think is worth talking about. But, sometimes, I let my sister do it. She just tells some stories better.

And, depending on the crowd, we may not tell the story at all. It wouldn’t be a story to them.

People say: I have a really good story idea for you. If I’m doing my job right, then you don’t even need to preface idea with anything. I should be able to take anything and write about it in a way that makes it interesting. I think. I don’t know. Life’s weird, ya know?

I don’t want to mess up other peoples’ stories, but I want to make them my own. I want to know when to back off a story, and when to let someone else tell a more important one.

Guess we’ll see what happens.

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