Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tell Me a Story

ActorAustin asked me last night why I hadn't written yet about our little adventure at a club in Charlotte called Coyote Joe's, and said he was waiting in suspense to see what dry, witty bit of snark I learned about life via steel-guitar playin' Russians, giant singers with giant-er egos, and the oppressive, dystopic hat restrictions.

It wouldn't be that hard to come up with something, either, because the whole experience was so bizarre (from the standing, snarling grizzly bear in a glass box, to the senior citizens groping each other on the dance floor as the semi-country Rock band chanted "It's Getting Hot In Here, So Take Off All Your Clothes") that very nearly everything in the place had a story. But my heart just hasn't been in it.

What I have been wanting to write about is marriage: specifically, why I think it's freakin' awesome. I suppose this is odd, coming from a guy whose wife left him less than three months ago, but I have a bit of a bone to pick. One of the really bothersome things about the experience of being wife-dumped has been the way a number of my good friends - people whose opinions I generally respect - have just sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, "well, it's a bummer there's a kid in the equation, but I guess sometimes things just don't work out. Hope you find somebody else". I call Bull-Excrement and, shaking my fist, yearn to ascend the soapbox.

When I told ActorAustin this, he demanded that I write a narrative essay - which is to say, a story that hooks the reader into living the narrative with the characters and engaging the idea in a more holistic way, rather than just with that little bit of mind that handles reason and argument. He argued that it will last longer and be more effective than if I try to argue them into my point of view.

He's right, too. Last Wednesday I asked my third period class - the one I have just after chapel - what they thought of the speaker.  There were a whole lot of shrugs and one girl said, "he was all right, I guess."

"What did he talk about?", I asked.

This is typically a pretty chatty class, but no one volunteered an answer. With a little more prompting, one guy said, "Um, I think there was something about light". A few other students agreed - and remember that this response was coming about fifteen minutes after the guy had spoken his last word. Not exactly rousing, memorable oratory, I think you could say.

My third period class is primarily comprised of freshmen. Two weeks ago they all got out of fourth period to hear award-winning young-adult author Gary Schmidt speak over at the middle school. So I asked them what they had thought of his talk. Most of them chimed in with enthusiasm.

"I was expecting it to suck", said one typically un-involved boy, "I thought he'd talk all about how to write paragraphs or something, but it was really interesting."

"What was your favorite part?" I asked.

And at that point, the whole class jumped in, recounting parts and pieces of each of the three stories he had told over a forty-minute period. They had all been engaged. The funny thing was that although they remembered the stories distinctly, they didn't remember being taught anything. His main point had been clear, though, and when I brought it up, they all remembered and relived it. Because he had said it in a story, they had all easily absorbed what Schmidt was trying to teach them

"I guess that's the problem I have with these chapel speakers", I said. "They fail to tell good stories, so they never answer the question 'why should you trust me?' The only people who are going to get anything out of it are the people who already agree with them - and even they won't really remember anything. This is because in order to matter as a speaker to people who don't have an overwhelming pre-existing reason to trust you, you have to tell them a story."

"That was what was cool about Jesus.", I went on, "He didn't provide answers, he just sort of explored the questions with stories, so that as listeners we could place ourselves in those stories and, hopefully, buy into the truths they were meant to convey. Jesus loved people and took care of their practical needs, and therefore had probably earned enough credibility that they would have listened to some dry theological homily. Nonetheless, for the most part he did nothing but tell stories - and look at how long those stories have been remembered, and the number of people they have affected."

My class listened politely, as they usually do. I am, after all, just a teacher - telling them one more time and in one more way what to believe. Maybe some of the things I rant about will sink in, but what they will probably remember a lot more clearly is the stories I tell them - about my failed marriage, or the adventures I had in Peru, or the crazy things I did as a tree planter in Canada. The cumulative effect of those stories and the lessons I have learned from them is bound to have a greater impact on the way these young men and women (or "future slaves of corporate america", as I referred to them this morning) think and act.

ActorAustin listened politely as well as I recounted and re-ranted all this. Then he changed the subject to fear, and how I've been saying we do all sorts of destructive (and sometimes even good) things because of fear. Then I changed the subject and said that I would qualify that we do a lot less destructive things than we otherwise would because of the under-woven influence of love, and then we talked about Russians and movie-making and emotion-manipulating, and about two nights ago when we went to the crazy redneck bar with a couple of friends and sat awkwardly out of place, sanctimoniously laughing and watching the unfortunate implosion of our cultural heritage. ActorAustin and I are like that on the phone - we just blabber on about all sorts of things, weighing out ideas. We do this because we're friends, and are therefore in a story that we both find interesting enough to engage.

For my other friends - the ones I don't see any more who think it's cool to just end a marriage if it doesn't seem to be working out - perhaps I ought to just put the diatribing treatise on the back burner. Perhaps our stories have diverged too much, and they're unlikely to be swayed by any argument I make. In that case, I guess I ought to just keep on keeping on with my "Anatomy of an Effup".

Perhaps if I can share honestly the very humanness of the mistakes and failings that have brought me to this place of brokenness, they can walk with me through it and see as I do with the rose-tinted glasses of hope. If I have told a true enough story, it may be that they will experience through it a glimmer of the grace that I believe has the capacity to transcend the petty failures of all our lives and build of them a beautiful, restored mosaic of relationships.

2 comments:

  1. love you josh. and i really enjoyed reading this, was engaged throughout the whole thing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Hanners. Sisters are wondermuss. It brings into question your integrity as a literary critic, but I appreciate it nonetheless.

    ReplyDelete

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