Stories are Paths, Bulls, Nations and People

11 Aug

“Imagine the truth as a chain of great mountains, their tops way up in the clouds. Writers explore these truths, always looking out for new paths up these peaks.”

So the stories are paths?” Pasquale asked?

“No,” Alvis said, “Stories are bulls. Writers come of age full of vigor, and they feel the need to drive the old stories from the herd. One bull rules the herd awhile but then he loses his vigor and the young bulls take over.”

“Stories are bulls?”

“Nope.” Alvis Bender took a drink. “Stories are nations, empires. They can last as long as ancient Rome or as short as the Third Reich. Story-nations rise and decline. Governments change, trends rise, and they go on conquering their neighbors. Like the Roman Empire, the epic poem stretched for centuries, as far as the world. The novel rose with the British Empire, but wait…what is that rising in America? Film?”

Pasquale grinned. “And if I ask if stories are empires, you’ll say—“

Stories are people. I’m a story, you’re a story…your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we’re less alone.”

“But you never answered the question,” Pasquale said. “Why you come here.”

Bender pondered the wine in his hand. “A writer needs four things to achieve greatness, Pasquale: desire, disappointment, and the sea.”

That’s only three.”

Alvis finished his wine. “You have to do disappointment twice.”

(excerpt from Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter)

I’ve always preferred non-fiction to fiction. I like real life. I like true stories. But it’s only been the past few years where I’ve realized the truth that people are stories. I could never quite understand the love my parents, especially my Dad, had for people and their lives and their interests and their hardships. I much preferred the introverted activity of reading about people from a distance rather than the extroverted practice of learning about people from across the table.

But people are stories. Good stories have lots of unexpected twists and undesired turns and highs and lows and villains (not always human) and growth and perseverance and triumph. All of us can recite stories from memories – fairy tales and popular movies and classic literature – but sometimes sharing our own personal stories helps us make sense of them.

And when our stories join together…for however long…it is good.  A random comment made about a fellow gym-goers triathlon shirt turns into us realizing we are training for the same half Ironman and marathon…turns into training bike rides…turns into a friendship.  A random offer to walk someone home turns into many walks around Charlestown…turns into laughs at the gym…turns into laughs outside the gym…turns into a friendship. A friendship between two couples in their college years turns into friendships among their children…turns into racing together and suffering life’s hardships together…turns into late night conversations.

I could go on.

But then there’s the greatness: desire, disappointment, and the sea.

Desire is what propels us to set goals and pushes us to reach those goals. It forces us to reach out when we cannot succeed on our own. It keeps us standing up when life pushes us down. It gives form and structure to the tyranny of each day.

Disappointment is what keeps desires from simply being accomplishments. Disappointment is what brings the flavor and texture to our lives. Disappointment is what molds our character and makes us stronger, helps us clarify our desires, often makes us adjust our expectations of our desires.

And the sea. The sea is what reminds us that life is bigger than us. Our stories are bigger than just us. When we become too inwardly focused on our desires and our disappointments, we look to the sea. And we remember that we are not as powerful, not as large, not as constant and steady.

We are the boy splashing and the man fishing on the surface of the sea. We are the teeming fish and radiant coral below the sea. We are the sunken ship resting on the sea floor. But we are not the sea.

We are the hero of our own stories. We are also the villain of our own stories. We are the author of our own story, and yet-

We are not.

We cycle through: desire, disappointment, and the sea.  And we do disappointment twice.  At least. Twice a year? Twice a day? Twice what we ever plan on.

But our stories join together, and we are less alone. And that makes all the disappointment, the unfulfilled desire, the vastness of the sea reminding us of our smallness bearable. And it makes the story better.


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