Category Archives: storytelling

Story vs. anti-story

The Badass Bandidos (not to be confused with Frito-Lay Banditos).

Why do we tell stories? Why do we read stories? Why do they enthrall us still?

For sure, they’re entertainment; they help dispel the dullness and the lack of action in our regimented daily lives.

They help us while away the time around the campfire and the dark, and scare away the wild animals out there — or in here, in our breasts, where the wildest animals of all cavort and claw, including the sneaking suspicion that our lives mean nothing at all.

Last night, about 11:00, I got a call from an old buddy from long ago in graduate school days, in Austin, Texas, which he calls “Critterville.” Tom regaled me, and bored me, for a half hour with a long-winded story about the time he was confronted, and damn near killed, so he said, by the Bandidos, a motorcycle gang, somewhere behind a strip club. Ah, yes, these critters sucker-punched him, surrounded and cocked their guns at him, all but put a salvo of bullets through his brain, blah blah blah blah blah.

And yet, can you believe it, he lived to tell about it!

It still gets the adrenaline going, I guess, at least his adrenaline, though he now weighs about 400 pounds, I swear, and lies abed all day with multiple afflictions, including now prostate cancer.

I tried to interrupt Tom and direct the conversation to his cancer, something I have experience with, but he said, “Wait, let me finish this story.” So, yes, he finished the bullshit story, which showed among other things his grace under pressure, his luck, his wit, his quick thinking, his involvement in real action at a real point in his perhaps pointless life.

And isn’t that the point of narrative, as I say? To give point to that which is otherwise pretty pointless? To push back the curtain of night and despair, and suggest a myth by which all of us cavemen and critters can live?

And if these are all motives for storytelling, then isn’t storytelling, whether personal or artistic, a lie? Isn’t there a strong motive, in other words, not to tell stories, which seek to memorialize, to justify, to raise up out of the dust, but to tell anti-stories?

In modernist, or postmodernist, fiction, antinarrative is a movement and technique in itself:

Challenging the traditional conventions surrounding the concept of a narrative, an antinarrative makes use of those conventions to call attention to itself and the practices and modes being used to convey meaning to an audience. Many times ironic, antinarratives implicitly question the validity of conventional narrative logic and the structural aspects and strategies of a narrative in general.

To use an example from real life, as we call it, James Holmes, the Joker of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings, wrote his own antinarrative in a notebook that he, like many other mass murderers, kept. Besides doodling and scratching out maddeningly repetitive pages full of “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?,” trying to make sense of his “broken brain,” Holmes pinpointed the motive of his story:

Terrorism isn’t the message. The message is, there is no message.

If you were telling Holmes’ story, how would you do it? Whether a conventional murder mystery, a detective story, a thriller, or a literary effort, you’d use the events of his story but not necessarily put them in conventional chronological order. If your message included Holmes’ own nihilism (“there is no message”) you’d probably shake things up in many ways.

Street poet

Started out this morning with sixty-five bucks  in my pocket. Now, when I turn the pocket inside out, it’s empty.

  • $20 for driver’s license renewal at the station on Razorback Rd;
  • $5 for coffee, cookie, and tip at the Arsaga’s at the library;
  • $10 toward a tip for a massage at IM Spa;
  • $10 for lettuce and flowers at the Farmers’ Market (the vendors were packing up and hustling off when I got done with the massage); and, last but not least, out of chronological order here but forming the climax of the list (drum roll, please)
  • $20 for a sidewalk poem (tah-dah!).
street poet
Street poet has typewriter, will travel.

By the time I got to the spa and parked in front and plugged the meter, it was 11 am and my wallet was down to $40. What the hell. When the tall young man approached me for his spiel, I knew I was a goner. He said he was a poet and recited poems aloud. He said he was from Santa Fe, and got kicked off a new acquaintance’s couch this morning in Fayetteville after rolling into town last night. He allowed as to how Motel Six was the cheapest bed in town at $41.95. He held out his hand.

All right, I conceded. Let’s have it. And he gave it to me, standing in the street, between my car and the next, something moral and uplifting, this wannabe Rumi recited, about listening to conversations as if they were the final words between a father and a son, for, it turns out (so the poet suggested), they always are.

Point well taken, I said. I like the strong moral, I allowed. Sure, the poet said, that’s why I like it too.

So I handed him an Andy Jackson from my billfold (I had just two twenties now), and he said, No shit! Thanks, man! Hey, would you like to hear a joke?

Why not? I said. I was agreeable. This was an encore, yes? A good return on my investment? Shoot!

Why doesn’t a blind man parachute from an airplane?

Geez, I said. I have no idea. Why?

‘Cause it freaks the shit out of the dog!

Oh, my young fellow! Oh heavens to Betsy! Heavens, I’m falling on the ground! Don’t do that to an old man, young man! Oh my! My eye! Oh my!

At which he sauntered away, smiling, to ply his trade elsewhere, and I went chuckling into the spa, where I submitted my wrinkled flesh to a full hour and a half of pummeling on the part of the young maseuse.

Damn, girl, I said, when she was done jabbing and prodding and rubbing me. That was both sensual and powerful. I bet you could hold off an army with those thumbs, couldn’t you?

Possibly, she allowed, smiling.



Centenarian stories

On 5 September 2015 my mother would have been 100 years old had she been living. Unfortunately for her sake, and ours, she died about 24 years ago at the age of 76 . We have dearly missed Mother, genius as she was of the happy hour, when we would gather, parents and children, and tell happy stories of the old days. In our telling, that is, the days were happy, or the telling was happy, even while telling of struggles and dissension. The tales that Mom loved especially were about her struggles with Grandpa, her husband’s father. Old Grandpa Tony was what my dad called “old school,” meaning that he had very fixed ideas about behavior proper to men and women among other things. And my mother’s behavior did not fit in with Grandpa’s idea of what a woman should be like and what she should act like. My mother’s smoking, especially, enraged Grandpa. He would fume, not with cigarette smoke but with his Yosemite Sam temper, about Mother’s smoking. He would mutter, only half under his breath, so that everyone could hear, including Mother, unflattering things about “that woman and her smoking!”

With such stories we would regale each other, reinforcing types  and stereotypes of the dramatis personae of our family. Yes , in our telling, Grandpa was either an old-school tyrant or villain, on the one hand, or a clown, on the other, whose behavior was so rustic and so boorish that all you could do was laugh at it, especially these many years later.

The clown stories included episodes of Grandfather’s cheapness. He was so cheap, or tight, that he saved everything, for reuse, from newspapers to old bottles to plastic bags. He and Grandma Gertie, children of the old school and the depression, were fervent early recyclers not for the sake of the environment but their pocketbook.

The most comical story, could be, was told by my brother-in-law Russell Murphy. When Russ and my sister Barbara were first married and had several small children and lived in the suburb of Richfield , Grandpa called them excitedly one night saying, “Hurry! Hurry! You must get here before they come!” Before who come? Russ wondered. But he and Barbara and all the kids piled in the car and trundled up to northeast Minneapolis, a half hour or so away, the Polish part of Minneapolis where Grandpa lived. As soon as they pulled up to the curb, Grandpa ran out calling excitedly, “Hurry! Hurry! They’re coming!” And when Russ asked, “Who are coming?,” Grandpa merely repeated, “Hurry! Hurry!” and took them through the frontyard and then the backyard to the alley, where the noise of the garbage truck was approaching. “Hurry! Hurry!” Grandpa repeated.

What they were hurrying for, It turns out, Is the loads of windfall apples under the trees on both sides of the alley. “Hurry!” Grandpa panted. “Or they’ll be gone!” For he knew a good deal when he saw it, son of the depression, grandson of desperation, and his zeitgeist was not in accord with that that of the booming ’50s and ’60s. When Russ and Barb got home with their apples, they discovered a dubious windfall — most of the fruit at least half rotten, much of it needing to be thrown away. For all their labor, both coming and going, gathering and preparing, they ended up with a measly few bottles of apple sauce or preserves.

The old immigrant America, quaking in its impecunious boots, desperate for a few free chances, vs. the booming native sons and daughters, with their spendthrift and profligate ways. C’est la vie, non? Here today, gone tomorrow. And no one was starving.

We would tell these stories, as I say, and laugh uproariously. The distance between them and us! The distance of time, place, and point of view! The hilarity of their rustic desperation!

Of course, the day would come, and has, when our heirs would laugh their tails off telling tales, tall and short, about our eccentricities and peccadilloes. How frightened we were and shrunken! How afraid of every shadow that blew!  Now that they knew what was what, and what was not, they could settle back to their drinks, their food, chewing the fat of this generous land and worrying no storytelling bones.