ometimes you’ve got to get quiet.
There are stories around us, all sorts of fascinating ones. Your partner, your neighbor, your coworker, all have stories. You might not have a direct use for them (i.e. in your current written work) but sometimes you can actually pick up something I’ll call “the rhythm of humanity” in the stories your friends tell you.
I remember driving with a nice older gentleman all the way to Atlanta. Lots of time to share stories on that long, long road. On the way, he told me about his four divorces, and also his hundred and fifty mile bike rides along the California coast. This was back in the day when ten speeds were true bikes (and not carbon wisps they are now). I looked at this guy I thought I’d known in a fully different light.
Or the woman at work with a quiet desk job. Turns out she used to be a diamond merchant’s presenter; she’d fly out every so often with a million dollars of rocks in a brief case, sometimes on a private Lear Jet, to present various offerings to high-priced meetings at various places around the world. I never would have imagined it.
My dad told me about standing on the flight deck off the coast of Vietnam during the war, watching the NVA rockets climbing against the night sky.
The Indian ladies I work with tell me stories about growing up in their homeland, which sounds like something out of National Geographic (and hard to equate with the tech hub the place is now). Dirt streets, wandering dogs, common wells, farm fields. Different world.
There was that story a friend once told me; he and his father manning a train order station in the middle of desert nowhere, where a battle between a train crew and a distant dispatcher came to a head. It was a wonderful story with human emotions and wild gestures, a perfect yarn I’ve long remembered.
Years ago in a yuppie bar in York, Pennsylvania, I remember getting into an argument with a young woman from our Friday night crowd whether people in this place had stories of merit. I suppose I was equating this to whether their lives had meaning, or if they had had an event, did they recognize it as such. She being a more positive person than I, we bet on it. Turns out about half of the people there could tell stories about horrific car crashes (one guy was ejected out his sun roof), or nighttime dives on the Great Barrier Reef, or facing cancer as a child. The other half? Usually something to do with sex in the back seat of a car in a parking lot in November. Maybe they hadn’t had time to reflect on their stories. Maybe they just didn’t have any.
The point is, you really need to be still when someone tells you a story. If it’s the usual workplace lunch rant, tune out, by all means. But the stories people tell you, when they gift you with something that comes without politics or point or reason, just something that happened to them, described fully and carefully – get quiet and listen. You are hearing something very close to human truth. And maybe it won’t make a single difference in the stories you write, but perhaps it will. Because sometimes the experiences people have can be more deep and fulfilling then the ones you imagine.