Friday, January 31, 2020

But Is It A Story?

I am reaching that age where I start telling kids about the long walks I took to get to school, dealing with rain, snow, mud, tornadoes, and wild animals just so I could get to class - and how I was grateful for the opportunity. However, as a kid my trip wasn't that bad. At best, it was a three-thousand-foot walk; longer if we took the sidewalks, but usually we cut through backyards and walked along easements leading to the far end of the playgrounds in the back of the schoolyard. It was close enough so I could actually go home for lunch if I ran. So that's what I did for my first five years of school. Not much of a story there.

Now, if I am telling the story of my life, I have to consider how to frame this particular situation. That walk to school is kind of boring, but it's a part of my childhood. So I have to ask myself, do I want to tell the facts on the ground when I was growing up, or do I want to tell stories about those days? That walk is a part of my past, but it's not a story. However, of those 900 days where I made that walk, there were events that stood out. Are those stories?

John le Carre famously said, “'The cat sat on the mat' is not a story. 'The cat sat on the other cat’s mat' is a story.” The point is that a story requires something to stand out, to be exceptional, to be a story. Otherwise it's just reporting. Who cares about the cat on its mat? However, once that cat is on the other cat's mat, it sets off a bunch of things. Why the change? How does the other cat feel about this? Will this escalate? That simple shift makes all the difference. Otherwise, it's just a thing that happened.

Let's look at my walks to and from school. There were leashed dogs along the way. Are they worth turning this into a story? Well, a leashed dog can be interesting, but does it change anything? Along that way was a particularly monstrous Husky/werewolf mix that would strain the heavy-gauge chain hooked to its fat leather collar as it tugged and barked and howled, craving the flesh of human children. Now is it a story? Not yet. And unless that dog either breaks the chain, turns into a human in front of me, or dies, it will never be anything more than background filler, no matter how vicious it may be.

The thing that made that walk to school a story was the one day when either the school or the town put up a chain-link fence across the one gap between the schoolyard and the easement. It couldn't have been more than a six-foot-high fence, but it cut us off from school, and we would have to backtrack and take... the sidewalks! The fence also had tar spread across the top rail to further deter us children from climbing the fence, as children are prone to do. This fence was a statement. A challenge. It was our third-grade Everest.

Now it's a story.

When we write about our experiences and discuss the highs and lows, we need to ask ourselves if we are just reporting the facts or if we are demonstrating how we faced the changing world around us. A story involves change, confrontation, and resolution either through triumph or failure. A story is an adventure, even if the adventure is merely a cat on the wrong mat. A story talks about a changing world. If the world doesn't change, then it's just reporting.

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