Tell It Like It Is

People love a good story. We always have. We like to hear them, and we like to tell them. But what is it about telling our version of the story that makes it so exhilarating? Why do we expend the effort to tell the same tales over and over again? And why do certain aspects of the telling change each time we do it?

The oral tradition of storytelling has existed for, well, longer than I care to estimate. Storytelling, much like writing, gives us a way to make sense of things, to create order where we may not otherwise perceive it. In telling (or retelling) a story, we are preserving our own voice. We are maintaining the integrity of our perception of life and the people in it.

But what does storytelling do to truth? Sure, people make amazing storytellers. If we see that we have a captive audience, we bind ourselves to continue the telling, embellishing what can be embellished and omitting that which doesn’t work in our favor.

They say there are two sides to every story, but none of us will tell it the same way twice. How many people have a voice in any one story? What if we all have a side, and what if they are all different?

Fiction Friday: Small Victories

The call came in at the newspaper reporter’s desk late on a Sunday. Finally, he wanted to meet.

Stanley had been waiting all week for this. He had been relentless in his attempts to secure an interview with this guy, but to no avail. No problem, Stanley thought. When I finally get my day, he won’t know what hit him.

Now was his chance. He was going to get his story (and what a story it would be) independently. The days of being marshaled by the senior reporters were over. This was the story that would prove Stanley’s journalistic mettle.

“I’ll show them,” he thought to himself. “Now they’re gonna see what real reporting looks like.”

Stanley decided not to return the call immediately. He’d waited; now it was the other guy’s turn. Stanley could play this game for a week, longer if he had to. It made him feel powerful. The ball’s in his court. He’s holding all the cards.

Two days after his office received the call, Stanley decided the time had come. He picked up the phone receiver with dampened palms. Don’t blow this one, Stanley-boy.

Stanley dialed carefully so as not to reach a wrong number. He waited less than patiently as the phone rang once. Twice. A third time.

“Good morning,” said the female voice at the end of the line. Her sunny enthusiasm made Stanley cringe.

“Yeah, I’m trying to reach your manager about doing a grand-opening piece for the newspaper. I wanted to see if I could talk to your clown…”

“Uh, his name’s Ronald,” she returned.

“Yeah, whatever, when can I talk to him?”

“Let me check.” Stanley thought he could hear the gum smacking through the phone. His sense of cut-throat confidence wavered.

“Be here tomorrow around three,” she said after a few minutes.

“Three? That’s the soonest? You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me.” Stanley didn’t have time to wait. This story could be crucial to his future here at the paper, and he couldn’t afford to bungle it.

“We’ll see you then at three tomorrow?” she asked. She either didn’t hear his question or, more probably, was choosing to ignore it.

Stanley put the phone in the cradle and sat back in his chair. After the debacle that was the high school talent show story he really needed to redeem himself.

When Stanley arrived the next afternoon, he walked through the door of the shiny new McDonalds, and the smell of French fries slammed into him. Happy meal boxes littered the tables, and children ran amuk with their little plastic toys. Now this was what journalism, real journalism, was meant to feel like.

*This writing is based on a prompt provided by Writers Digest circa February 11, 2011. For more information on Fiction Friday, see the Fiction Friday page.

Text ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved.

Novel Thoughts: 13 rue Therese

Elena Mauli Shapiro’s 13, rue Thérèse deals with the history of a woman, Louise, as it is seen through the eyes of a professor working in Paris. Louise’s belongings, now mere artifacts to be consumed by study, come to Trevor Stratton via his department secretary Josianne with whom he is apparently in love. This detail, however, is fairly easy to overlook until the very last few pages.

The way the story is told can at times seem confusing. There is no continuity of time, which could perhaps be a way to suggest that suffering of the kind Louise endures knows no temporal limitations. Readers are constantly brought back and forth through time, and by the end of the book the current year, the year in which Dr. Stratton is supposedly situated, has become all but totally ambiguous.

There is an underlying theme likening the fallout of a broken heart to the fallout of war, specifically World War 1. Louise lives in Paris during the uneasy years between the first world war and the second. Stratton is an American in Paris after World War 2. As he studies Louise’s life, he begins to understand that the war permeated every conceivable part of her life, and the broken heart from which she suffered and the decisions she made because of it were the direct result of having lived and loved during the war.

Shapiro’s vocabulary sometimes seems out of place, as if she had her hands on a word too big and too slippery for her story and wanted to use it before it got away. For example, she writes, “Louise genuflects before the alter and crosses herself with holy water.” Genuflect is a marvelous word, and most of us learned context clues in the first grade so the meaning isn’t totally obscure. But I can’t help wondering if it is perhaps a bit overwhelming here. Essentially the sentence is about that word, particularly for those of us who don’t use it frequently.

Louise’s life and the people who populate it make for a very intriguing depiction of life in 1928. Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to most of them, and she includes details that don’t necessarily pertain to the story. These details make the characters all the more fascinating because they explain so much about why they function in Louise’s life the way they do, why they make the decisions they make and why they say the things they say. They are more life-like when they are written this way, although attempting to sort out who’s doing what does become confusing sometimes.

The book’s concept is an interesting one and is presented in a dynamic way. The e-book comes complete with photo images of what readers are supposed to believe are Louise’s belongings, which makes for a more interactive reading experience. The last chapter introduces a new twist that isn’t exactly well explained, a ploy that might have weakened the ending a bit, but the story in general wraps itself up nicely, and the reader can turn the last page feeling fulfilled.

*For more information about Novel Thoughts and to see a list of upcoming books, visit the Novel Thoughts page.

Novel Thoughts and Fiction Friday

In an effort to keep things fresh and to prevent growing pains, I have two new weekly blogs planned for Just Joywriting.

The first is called Novel Thoughts. Each week one post will feature a review of sorts about a book I’ve recently read. Most often they will be works of fiction (hence the name Novel Thoughts), but there are some works of nonfiction on the list as well. I’m reluctant to call them reviews or critiques; this isn’t that kind of blog. Their purpose is mainly (and hopefully) to inspire others to read the books as well. These posts will, more often than not, appear on Thursdays.

The second is called Fiction Friday. These posts will feature a short story I’m currently working on. Generally they will be episodic; it may take three weeks (sometimes more, sometimes less) to get the whole story posted. These stories are an effort to make myself accustomed with writing fiction that other people will see. They are by no means perfect. Feel free to weigh in on them, but keep in mind my novice status with the genre. These posts will appear on Fridays, as per the title.

My goal with these posts is to explore new possibilities both in reading and in writing. I hope they inspire conversation, and I hope they bring the reader as much joy as they bring the writer.

A Place Called Home

Apartment complexes are the last remaining bastions of semi-communal living. Residents are bound to each other by proximity if nothing else. Anonymity is allowed only so long as the status quo is maintained.

No stage of the life cycle is turned away there. Some residents are newer, younger. They are college Freshmen forging ahead, idealistic and full of potential. They are just starting out. Other residents are a bit older. The idealism has faded and been replaced by cynicism and regret. They have been married, perhaps happily, perhaps not. They have seen their children grow into teenagers who resent them for things they never did. Yet there is still an element of hope. Better things are just over the horizon if they can just keep truckin’.

The ones who remain have seen both previous stages. They have been young and full of optimism. They have been married, perhaps divorced, widowed. They have seen children grow up and beget grandchildren. They still visit every once in awhile. They’ve had homes full of life, love, and happy holidays. And for whatever reason, they end up in an apartment, surrounded sometimes by people just like themselves but also by people in whose shoes they have walked.

In the same way that living in these apartment complexes fosters a sense of community, perhaps more tangible than anything outside them, they also present life in microcosm. A living timeline. Proof positive that not all obstacles are insurmountable.

It’s a Sign

Modern media knows no bounds when it comes to reaching a target audience. We allow ourselves to be reached any time, day or night, and for the most part we are ok with this. We think it connects us all in some way, and we don’t want to miss anything. Sure, the old stand-bys still serve their purpose; television and radio, though waning on the radar of media manipulation (thank you, TiVo), still reach a vast proportion of the population. But the evolution of the Internet, complete with the explosion of social networking, has made advertising possible on levels once inconceivable.

This has me curious about outdoor advertising. If we can be reached on so many more personal levels, then to what purpose do we still have billboards on the side of the interstate? Do they exist simply for nostalgic reasons? Are we actually affected by their content?

I have no personal beef with outdoor advertising; in fact, I think the interstate would be pretty boring without something to look at every once in awhile. I do, however, find fault with those billboards whose meanings remain elusive even ten miles down the road. Take, for example, the billboard next to the expressway. It reads, “The end is near.” That’s it. There’s no attribution, no remedy, no solution offered, no sponsor. Just a simple prognostication of what’s in store.

While I appreciate honesty in advertising, I also appreciate some direction. Buy this, don’t buy that. Eat here, don’t eat there. I suspect I’m not alone. We like to know who’s sponsoring the advertising. We like our cynicism with a little side of purpose. Instead what we get from billboards like this one is not only more confusion but also an imposing sense of the inevitable, something most of us would rather not think about, particularly as we drive down the freeway.

I can’t help wondering about the goal of billboards like this one. Nostalgia? Certainly not. An attempt to garner business? Well, isn’t that the point? To create a sense of urgency? That only works when the sign also explains who can alleviate the urgency.

Is this the future of outdoor advertising? Why expend the effort? The money? If this is what we have to look forward to on road trips, my personal prediction is that most of us will spend a lot more time with our smartphones on which we can be advertised to in ways that don’t inspire a sense of futility.

Vonnegut and The Epizootic

The ancient world was no stranger to great civilizations. Each one had its ideals; each one had its goals. And each one reached the point at which it became, as we say back home, too big for its britches. These civilizations sought to conquer all, to be the end-all be-all of world powers. And they met their demise, in large part, because of these ambitions. That’s ancient history (if you’ll pardon the pun).

What happens when we shrink these ambitions down to the microcosm? What happens when we apply them to, say, humans? One human? And what happens when we bring them forward into the twenty-first century?

Today’s ultimate goal doesn’t appear to be one of world conquest, although I could be wrong (stranger things have happened). We seem today to be caught up in a desire for more. Not a specific more, but a general overwhelming sense of ownership of, well, anything. We like stuff because stuff is an outward expression of who we think we’re supposed to want to be. We like our cars and our clothes and our access to technology, even our kids’ educations, to wreak of success, usually of the monetary sort.

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story entitled “The Epizootic” envelopes the concept of “committing suicide to create wealth.” Although I’m not sure when this story was written, it does seem to be hauntingly applicable to what’s happening today. The story talks about “one-way men.” These are the people who are born only to move up in the world. For them, there is only one direction in which to move. When that mobility becomes tenuous, they begin to panic and seek desperate measures to insure that their children will only move up. Their suicides allow their families to collect life insurance policies that will sustain them for the duration.

Vonnegut ends the story by suggesting that “the principal industry in this country is now dying for a living.” While I think that’s hyperbolic, I do see that at times we seem like a “one-way” society. We allow ourselves to be blinded to the possibility that there are many directions in life, and not all of them are up. We make progress without enjoying what it took to get us where we are. The end goal becomes a stepping stone, a brief interlude in our quest for whatever becomes our idea of the next best thing. So what happens when we get too big for our britches? What happens when we no longer see that it is what we do that helps make us who we are, not what we drive or what we wear? I’m not suggesting that Vonnegut’s Epizootic will ever become a real thing. But his story does seem to expose a certain weakness in our nature that we should no longer ignore.

Halfway Through and New To-Do

Middles are tricky. Generally we can figure out how to navigate beginnings and endings; we know what emotions correspond to each. But the middle presents an entirely different problem. Middles are where we get tired, lazy, antsy, uncomfortable. Middles are where we get anxious. The beginning is just far enough behind for us to mourn the loss, but the end is still too far away to be considered urgent. Think midlife crisis.

A blog is no different. We start in the beginning with a vague concept of what we want the blog to be. We perceive ourselves with uncertainty. When I started this blog in January, I had no idea in which direction it would go. That was the beginning. Now, seven months later, I’m finding myself searching for change and inspiration. That’s why I’ve joined the WordPress Post A Week 2011 campaign. Growth is a good thing, and change is inevitable. But sometimes finding that spark can prove difficult. So I look forward to getting tips, feedback, and encouragement from other people who are struggling with the middle.

Although I don’t anticipate the end any time soon, the first year seems to be about finding a voice that is truly one’s own. I have a lot of new things in mind for Just Joywriting. Wish me luck!

If You’ve Run Out of Options, Just Hang Up

Society seems to have created a world modeled on efficiency. At least that’s what we’ve convinced ourselves. We have gadgets and widgets for any task we care to generate for ourselves, and multitasking has become more than a skill to cultivate: it’s now a way of life. But what happens when, in our quest for ever-increasing productivity, we back ourselves into a non-communicative, inefficient corner?

Nowhere is this blunder more evident than in any automated call directory. You know the ones: “For billing, press one. For reservations, press two. For requesting the return of the last few minutes of your life, hang up and try your call again.”

In creating these menus, we think we’ve done something clever. We’ve strengthened our bottom line by having a machine do the work of a human, a model of efficiency, right? But somewhere along the way we seem to have gotten lazy. Or maybe our attention is simply stretched in too many directions. Whatever the case, there comes the inevitable phone call during which the option we are seeking is not available on the menu. We get countless levels into the menu before we realize that there is never going to be another person on the end of the line. At that point, though, this information seems to matter very little considering we are generally having trouble remembering what we called about in the first place.

I can’t help wondering how many dollars have been lost, how many bad decisions have been made, how many arguments have ensued after one of these failed attempts at navigating the spiral that is the automated menu. What is to be gained from this experience? Who is to benefit from it? Is it the disenfranchised operator? Is it us as consumers? Have we found a genuine application of the concept of efficiency here, or have we only alienated ourselves from the very resources that allow this type of so-called efficiency to exist?