“Atonement” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 29)

There is a simplicity to Dexter Filkins’ Atonement in the October 29, 2012 issue of The New Yorker: a company of Marines got into a firefight and wound up killing a number of civilians, including many members of the Kachadoorian family. Ten years later, one of the men in that company tries to find them to try and express his sorrow and regret over what he did.

Nora and Margaret Kachadoorian

Photo by Andrea Bruce for The New Yorker

The opening to “Atonement” is brilliant. In the opening paragraph, the reader immediately understands who the key person in the story is, what happened in Iraq, and gets a clear, visceral sense of the horror of that night:

Almost every night was like this. Lobello couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop thinking about his time in Iraq. Around San Diego, he’d see a baby—in a grocery store, in a parking lot—and the image would come back to him: the blood-soaked Iraqi infant, his mother holding him aloft by one foot. “Why did you shoot us?’’ the woman demanded over and over. Other times, Lobello would see a Mercedes—a blue or white one, especially—and he’d recall the bullet-riddled sedan in the Baghdad intersection, the dead man alongside it in the street, the elderly woman crying in broken English, “We are the peace people! We are the peace people!” He’d remember that the barrel of his machine gun was hot to the touch.

The story introduces the reader first to Lobello, then, second, to Nora and Margaret Kachadoorian, who survived the gunfire that killed most of their family. And then it moves towards a possible meeting between all three, whose lives were irrevocably changed that night in 2003.

Lobello’s struggles and unresolved guilt make him a sympathetic figure in the story, but the morality of his actions remain murky and gray. Filkins includes a quote midway through the story is revealing and troubling:

Lobello had only the vaguest idea how many Iraqis they had killed and wounded; he could remember only the frenzy of it, the terrifying thrill, the streams of bullets going in. “A lot of times, I think what happened was, somebody would realize, Fuck, dude, we’re not shooting the right people. But it was like the beast was already going. You can’t say hold on, stop, wait—no way. No way. You can say, ‘Cease fire. Cease fucking fire!’ Well, fuck, all right, man, but let me get off a couple more rounds. It’s like having sex with a woman, and she’s saying, ‘Let’s stop right now.’ You can’t. You’re in it.”

It’s clear from many accounts of the incident during the story that panic and confusion played a large role in what happened, but Lobello’s description sounds like he is comparing it to (and justifying) rape. Lobello’s quote is disturbing, and I wonder if Filkins (or his editors) had reservations about including it in the story… or if they felt ethically obliged to keep it in the piece. Regardless, it is painfully honest and shows the reader a lot about the mindset of the soldiers that night as they opened fire.

Filkins writes small scenes that are rich with telling details. Here, he describes a meeting the Kachadoorians in their home, and in a small paragraph, we get a sense of both their quiet dignity and their ongoing sense of loss:

Nora brought out a tray of tea and lahmajun, the same Armenian dish that Margaret had served me nine years before. A framed photo of the Kachadoorian men—Nicolas, James, and Edmund—stood on a table next to the couch. “Every day when I put my head on my pillow, I remember this sight,” Margaret said, “how my eldest son, Nicky, fell in the street.”

The story is filled with tragedy. It’s also difficult to put down. Will they meet? What will they say if they do? Will a face-to-face meeting help either the family or the solider? The closing pages of the story are tense and riveting. It’s a powerful read you shouldn’t miss.

Read Atonement →

“The Hacker is Watching” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 25)

From increasingly powerful mobile phones to free FaceTime or Skype video chats to inexpensive GPS navigation tools, we’re living in a time where a lot of science fiction of our childhoods has become reality. For tech geeks like me, we live in a golden age. We’re instantly connected with the rest of the world in ways unthinkable decades ago. But the flip side to this is the threat of viruses, malware, and hacking that stir up our worst paranoia and fears, sometimes with good reason.

A woman in her underwear, getting dressed

Photo by Jason Madara for GQ

The Hacker is Watching by David Kushner in the January 2012 issue of GQ looks at a chilling tale of someone who managed to hack into the webcams and personal files of hundeds of users around the world. And not only did he violate other people’s privacy, he connected them directly with demands and threats, terrorizing them, it seemed, wherever they went.

What makes this interesting and effective is that Kushner starts off the piece from the perspective the victims, facing an invisible, powerful threat:

How would you feel, how would you behave, if the devices that surround your life were suddenly turned against you?

It’s a question that James Kelly and his girlfriend, Amy Wright, never thought they’d have to entertain. But one instant message changed everything. Amy, a 20-year-old brunette at the University of California at Irvine, was on her laptop when she got an IM from a random guy nicknamed mistahxxxrightme, asking her for webcam sex. Out of the blue, like that. Amy told the guy off, but he IM’d again, saying he knew all about her, and to prove it he started describing her dorm room, the color of her walls, the pattern on her sheets, the pictures on her walls. “You have a pink vibrator,” he said. It was like Amy’d slipped into a stalker movie. Then he sent her an image file. Amy watched in horror as the picture materialized on the screen: a shot of her in that very room, naked on the bed, having webcam sex with James.

The story shift quickly to the other side of the camera, where the reader is introduced to 32-year-old Luis Mijangos, who grew up in Mexico City and immigrated to Santa Ana, California. He isn’t revealed as a mustache-twirling villain, but rather, a complex person whose story is, if not sympathetic, somewhat understandable. Mijangos, whose father died from torture by drug cartels, was paralyzed from the waist down when he was sixteen, a victim of a gang violence crossfire in the streets of Mexico City. You don’t have to condone or approve of what he did, but by the end of the story, the reader can see why he did it.

Kushner profiles Mijangos, from his childhood to the present, and as he traces the outlines of his story, conveys the sense of power the growing hacking skills gave Mijangos:

Mijangos had one thing to help make him an expert hacker: time, and plenty of it. He spent all day in his wheelchair, digging deeper online. Hackers coalesced as teams, just like his old soccer club, and Mijangos printed up a T-shirt with the name of his squad, cc power (as in credit card)…

He wasn’t getting rich, but Mijangos says he earned enough to buy a $5,000 titanium wheelchair that he tricked out with $400 wheels. He felt reborn. “When it comes to hacking, yes, I’m not going to deny it—it’s like you feel like you accomplish something,” he says. “Like you feel proud of doing something that not many people can do.”

And as Mijango’s hacking becomes more expansive and invasive, it fuels his ego. His activities continue to give him a sense of power he lacked in everyday life:

An infection that had started with one victim spread to hundreds. For a guy stuck in a chair, it was like playing a real-life game of The Sims. He spent his days alone, watching up to four webcams, each one trained on a different victim. Sex became just a part of the thrill. He saw them crying, studying, or sitting on the can (apparently a lot of people take laptops into the bathroom). Eavesdropping on the everyday moments of their lives, in a way, felt most intimate of all. “Those people that I was able to watch on a daily basis,” he says, “I felt that they become like my friends.” Mijangos watched for hours as women slept or read; he was living his own twisted version of Rear Window, the lonely guy in a wheelchair staring out his glowing portal.

The story is thought-provoking. It doesn’t make you like Mijango or feel he doesn’t deserve punishment for his crimes, but it does humanize a threat that most of us usually think of as remote and faceless. It’s a eye-opening read, and one that may prompt you to cover up your webcam lens, just to be safe.

Read The Hacker is Watching →

“Never Let Go” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 19)

I’ve read at least 50 longform stories to this point this month, and I’ve picked 18 to write about so far. But none of them have affected me as deeply Kelley Benham’s “Never Let Go” seres for the Tampa Bay Times. The series is actually three stories — Lost and Found, The Zero Zone, and Baby’s Breath — on the birth of her baby, born four months early, weighing 1 pound, 4 ounces, and the difficult decisions she and her husband Tom faced. Taken together, “Never Let Go” really one long story, woven with deeply personal moments, fears, and thoughts. It’s terrifying, inspiring, suspenseful, provocative, and deeply moving.

Juniper

Photo by Cherie Diaz for the Tampa Bay Times

I won’t bury the lede: this is the best thing I’ve read all month.

I cried as I read part one on a crowded Amtrak train, then again when I read part two at a coffee shop. I didn’t care.

So, without spoiling anything, why is this so good?

First, it’s honest and open. Right away, the reader understands the gravity of the decision she and her husband had to make:

Few doctors would insist on intervening. The choice was ours to make.

He went through the list of possible calamities, each with its own initials. IVH, PVL, RDS, CLD, ROP, CP. The magnesium sulfate burned through me, sucking the will from every cell. Blood in the brain. Hole in the heart. Respiratory distress. Chronic lung disease. Ventilator. Wheelchair. Blind. Deaf. Developmental delays. Autism. Seizures. Cerebral palsy.

Every part of her was underdeveloped, fragile and weak. Every treatment would exact a toll. She might live, but she would likely have, to use the medical term, profound morbidities.

Odds she would die, no matter how hard they tried: better than half.

Odds she would die or be profoundly disabled: 68 percent.

Odds she would die or be at least moderately disabled: 80 percent.

Second, the story is very personal. The reader is brought into the deepest hopes, dreams and fears between her and her husband. By the time I finished the first story, I felt all-in with the couple, fully invested in their long-shot hopes. The two of them had to often feel very very alone during this experience, but the story puts us right there, intimately with them each step of the way:

We had envisioned a similar path for our daughter — horseback riding, piano lessons and the dean’s list. All that was gone now, and we grappled with the fundamentals. Would we try to keep her alive? If she lived, would she walk or talk? Would she one day give us a look that said, Why did you put me through this?

People always ask me if I prayed. I prayed the way people in foxholes are said to pray. I prayed with every thought and every breath. And I prayed with the certainty that I had no business praying, that I hadn’t earned the right. I’d never been religious. Worse, I knew we had defied the natural order in our determination to have a child. Through so many in-vitro procedures, with so many tests and needles and vials of drugs, we’d created life in a petri dish. To be given a child just long enough to watch her die felt like punishment for our hubris.

Third, the story is simply well written throughout; it’s rich with scenes, details, descriptions, and characters. This story is powerful on its own, but Benham’s writing elevates it. The story is powerful and emotional, but nothing feels melodramatic or sentimental for cheap emotional impact; the story walks through the moments of their experience, and she re-tells the story as it happened. The story is very personal, but she also does the hard work as a journalist of treating it like someone else’s story, digging into research, interviews, and reporting.

The story itself is written a year after much of the events occurred, and Benham went back and talked with many of the staff and doctors they worked with, asking them what they were thinking at the time, what they remember. Benham reveals things she didn’t know at the time; secrets the staff kept from her. It’s also clear that she carefully went back and looked at the places in the story in order to describe them more fully. Here’s an example from early on in the first story, where she describes the hospital, and how it is built for both joy and tragedy:

The Baby Place at Bayfront Medical Center is designed for celebrations. The rooms are private, with sleeping couches and flat screen TVs. Sliding panels obscure all evidence of the mess and peril of birth. Mothers are wheeled out holding fat drowsy newborns, dutiful dads follow with the balloons. Every time a baby is born, the loudspeaker carries the tinkling of a lullaby.

It’s easy to pretend, in that cozy place, that all babies come wailing into the world pink and robust, and are bundled and hatted and handed to teary mothers and proud dads. But sometimes it doesn’t go that way at all. That’s why behind the sliding panels there are devices for oxygen, suction and epinephrine. That’s why there’s a morgue on the ground floor.

Finally, the story reaches beyond their personal experience and explores the broader ethical, societal, medical, and cultural issues it raises. It ponders the increasing impact of science on fertility and childbirth, on issues of abortion, on the perils of health insurance and whether the costs such interventions can be justified. Benham does a great job sharing not only her own experience, but, as a journalist, she puts it into a larger context that has meaning for millions of other parents.

I can’t say much else without spoiling the story, so I won’t. Just don’t miss it. This series is narrative nonfiction at it’s best.

Read “Never Let Go” →

“Fatal Distraction” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Four)

Miles Harrison

Miles Harrison, a father who left his son to die in the back of his car.

(Photo by Rebecca Drobis)

I started reading Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction” in March 2009. I didn’t get to the final page until yesterday.

My first attempt to read the story stopped at page six. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. “Fatal Distraction” is about people whose children die after being forgotten and left in cars, something that happens 15 to 25 times a year in America. I had a 11-month-old baby at the time I first tried to read this piece, and the story — which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2010 — was so tragic and devastating, I had to set it aside until it didn’t feel so close to home.

Gene Weingarten is one of my favorite writers. He’s talented and versatile: a humorist, a master of feature writing, and the author of the best personal profile I’ve ever read, “The Peekaboo Paradox.” He can write short. He can write long. He can make you laugh or make you cry.

And then he writes something like this, which doesn’t really fit into any clear category. The story is nearly 9000 words, a sweeping look at the tragedy of men and women who left their kids to die in cars. His story isn’t judgmental, but it also hides nothing from the reader, providing graphic descriptions of what the children suffered and how they were found. He profiles several parents who made these horrible mistakes and looks at how society and our legal system deals with them:

The charge in the courtroom was manslaughter, brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. No significant facts were in dispute. Miles Harrison, 49, was an amiable person, a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father until the day last summer — beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cellphone — he forgot to drop his son, Chase, at day care. The toddler slowly sweltered to death, strapped into a car seat for nearly nine hours in an office parking lot in Herndon in the blistering heat of July.

It was an inexplicable, inexcusable mistake, but was it a crime? That was the question for a judge to decide.

At one point, during a recess, Harrison rose unsteadily to his feet, turned to leave the courtroom and saw, as if for the first time, that there were people witnessing his disgrace. The big man’s eyes lowered. He swayed a little until someone steadied him, and then he gasped out in a keening falsetto: “My poor baby!”

A group of middle-schoolers filed into the room for a scheduled class trip to the courthouse. The teacher clearly hadn’t expected this; within a few minutes, the wide-eyed kids were hustled back out.

Weingarten zooms in close on a few individuals like this, men and women who made these devastating errors, but he also tries to explain how this can happen. Weingarten pulls back the lens and shows that this isn’t just one tragic story; it’s a pattern:

Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.

One thing that makes this story so effective and powerful is its scope. Weingarten moves back and forth between the personal stories and the larger question of how these tragedies happen. He also looks at public reactions to these events. He reports on technologies and reforms that might prevent similar tragedies in the future. Research, interviews, and first-person observations give this story tremendous depth.

Weingarten takes his time, holding back judgment and asking more questions than he answers. The story overflows with tragedy, but also a few glimmers of hope and humanity. He doesn’t try to soften the story with sentimentality, but he hints that it is possible for some good to emerge from the aftermath of unthinkable tragedy.

This is a very tough read, but it is a tremendous example of the best work in longform nonfiction.

Read “Fatal Distraction” →

A little narrative goes a long way

Kevin WilliamsIn last night’s NFC Championship game, which the Giants won 20-17 in overtime, the outcome pivoted twice on turnovers by San Francisco punt returner Kyle Williams. Williams muffed a punt late in the fourth quarter, which gave the ball back to the Giants, who shortly after took the lead. San Francisco managed to tie the game and send it to overtime, but six minutes into that extra quarter of play, Williams fumbled the football during a punt return, and again, the Giants pounced on it. Minutes later, New York kicked the game-winning field goal that sends them to the Super Bowl.

Yahoo Sports writer Les Carpenter posted a short article about William’s night and the aftermath. It’s a good piece of reporting, but what struck me was a great little scene he captured at the end of the story, an excellent bit of narrative:

Yes, Kyle Williams was alone on the day he was introduced to the rest of the country. At one point, as he dressed, he noticed a man with a television camera filming him and he gave the man a cold glare. Otherwise, his eyes focused on nothing. He pulled on a White Sox cap and blue-hooded sweater, draped the hood over his head and quickly walked out of the locker room, into a tunnel filled with delirious Giants players, family members and eventually into the parking lot where he blended in with the fans and disappeared.

Outside the lot a line of red brake lights stretched up the hills. He would be going nowhere but at least nobody was going to know who he was.

What a great (and sad) little cinematic moment Carpenter captures in a very economical bit of writing. 125 words. We see Williams, alone, getting dressed, being filmed, putting a hood over his head, then walking out into a tunnel, where he passes members of the Giants celebrating. And then we see him drive off. It’s subtle, understated, and powerful. You don’t expect something like this in a quick sports story, but Carpenter shows that great narrative nonfiction can be done quickly and on deadline.

Washington Post’s “Facebook Story”

As I’ve noted before, many modern web communications create natural narratives. “A Facebook Story” by Ian Shapira in the Washington Post is a powerful work of narrative journalism that follows the story of a pregnant woman’s journey through her posts and those of her family and friends. Most of the story is told through the status updates by Shana Greatman Swers, with some small narrative annotations by Shapiro:

screen capture from Facebook story, showing posts and comments

It’s a powerful, emotionally-wrenching bit of journalism, done in a very unconventional way. I read it this morning and can’t get it out of my mind. I’m not sure if the story strikes me so deeply because my wife and I have recently had two children, or because it’s set, mostly, in the same hospital where our girls were born, or simply because it’s a gripping story told in the primary characters’ own words.

Shapira doesn’t do much traditional writing in this piece, but he shaped and edited Swers’ facebook feed to tell the story, with minimal bits of his narrative to round out the feature. The editors and designers at the Post also did a good job making the online story interactive: when you click on some of the photos, they expand so that you can see them bigger.

This approach wouldn’t work for a lot of stories, but this piece illustrates beautifully how old and new media can come together to create powerful, compelling narrative nonfiction.

If you haven’t read this, you should.

For more, check out Shapira’s live chat on the Post, as well as an interview with his editor Marc Fisher at the Nieman Storyboard.

Eclectic Method’s “story”

Quincy JonesOver the years, I’ve been a huge fan of all forms of mash-ups and bootlegs. Back when I used to have free time, I did a bunch of my own audio mash-ups for kicks, some of which got picked up and played around the world. Anyway, I recently discovered Eclectic Method, a group that specializes brilliant video mash-ups. Check out their takes on Sesame Street, Tarantino, Michael Jackson, and random baby talk.

On their “biography” page, they tell their story, but entirely with the biographical narratives of others. It’s genius. Strictly speaking, this isn’t really about writing, but this is insanely creative storytelling that I can’t help but admire. Check it out:

The Thanksgiving Narrative

The original Thanksgiving narrative is a semi-true tale about a harvest festival between American colonists and native Americans in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Reportedly, there was no pumpkin pie, only boiled pumpkin. Meh. The narrative usually stops there, leaving out subsequent massacres and wars.

Anyway, the key storyline was about different people and cultures coming together to celebrate a successful harvest. So that’s the original mythological narrative, the basis for the national holiday.

https://i1.wp.com/mattpusateri.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/rockwell-thanksgiving.jpg?w=560The second narrative is the modern notion of Thanksgiving, what I’d call the “Rockwell Narrative”: the idealized version of the modern American Thanksgiving dinner: a big happy family, together around a perfectly-set table, smiling as they prepare to devour a massive roast turkey. Gone is the original idea of different cultures and groups coming together; Rockwell’s Thanksgiving is private.

This iconic 1943 image provides the idea of Thanksgiving that advertisers, greeting card companies, and supermarkets want us to try and recreate (with their help). The narrative of the modern Thanksgiving is the celebration of family and abundance.

Growing up, this tidy, white-tablecloth vision of Thanksgiving drove a lot of frenzied preparations in our house: carefully aligning placesettings, using silver utensils, dusting off the China gravy boat, rushing out to various supermarkets, hunting for the “right” rolls to serve in a big, napkin-lined basket. When I’d elbow my way through the crowds at on Thanksgiving morning at Ralphs and Vons, I was one of countless Americans caught up in the annual, frenzied push to recreate Rockwell’s idea of the perfect family meal.

Today, Thanksgiving seems to have evolved to a more indivialized storyline. For many, it’s about “homecoming,” braving the airports, the Interstates, or turnpikes to make it back home for a holiday. For some, the Thanksgiving story is about eating, watching football, and drifting into comatose state. For others, it’s about a less glamorized idea of family: hoping to simply get along and avoid conflict (countless movies and sit-coms dramatize this side of the holiday).

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Passover narrative, and how my take on it has shifted over the years. Thanksgiving shares a lot with Passover: appreciation for one’s history, gratitude for collective good fortune, and a very big meal.

Compared to the mega-commercialization of Christmas, Thanksgiving still seems relatively unspoiled. The basic narrative remains intact: once a year, we try to slow down and celebrate our good fortune with others.

Considering all the other messages we get in our culture, that’s not a bad story to tell.

Long-form narrative and the art of cooking slow food

In the Washington Post last week, Joel Achenbach wrote an interesting feature on the diminishing opportunities for long-form narrative nonfiction in the newspaper-death-spiral/Twitter/iPhone era.

As seems to be the case anytime that I read about trends in the magazine and news business world these days, the outlook isn’t promising.

There seem to be two lines of thought: one is that modern audiences don’t have the patience or the attention span for longer narratives, which is why they watch reality TV shows and love Twitter. The other line says that people still want good journalism and storytelling: the problem has to do with the business model of publishing, not with the demand for good narrative. Achenbach gets to the heart of the problem:

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

And that’s part of the challenge as a writer. There are lots of opportunities to deliver “fast food” writing: short, punchy pieces. Sidebars. Lists. Examiner.com would rather I write five short posts a week than one long, thoughtful one. Getting the chance to write good, long-form narrative is a big challenge.

For what its worth, call me a optimist. There’s no question that there are a lot of ADD Americans out there who lose interest after 140 characters. But most people still crave good stories, true ones or fiction. It’s in our DNA. I see it with co-workers who are counting down the days until return of Lost, gripped with “what’s going to happen next.” I see it on the Metro, with commuters nose down in Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer books. I see in in my 18-month old daughter when she begs me to keep reading to her at night.

The stories we tell

Nate, David, and Ruth in a screenshot from Six Feet UnderOne of my favorite shows of all time was Six Feet Under. What made the show so great was that, even though every once in a while something extraordinary happened, most of the drama came from every day life decisions: where to go to school, whether to stay in a relationship, or when to change careers. The show was compelling because the narrative of every day lives doesn’t lack for drama. We all make decisions that might not matter to the rest of the world, but matter a lot to us.

The more I read, study, and think about narrative, the less is seems to do with writing. Narrative is about storytelling, and storytellers are everywhere: sports announcers, radio talk show hosts, car salesmen, speed daters. Everyone spins a story – yours or theirs – and creates a narrative about what happened or what will happen. The Bears lost because they got sloppy. Obama won because he gave people hope. The new iMac will make your life easier.

And when we tell stories about ourselves, we reveal our character: who we are or how we’ve changed. People tell these stories all the time, consciously or not, to define themselves to others.

When I was still single, I would often tell my “worst date” story to women I was out with for the first time. The “worst date story” recounted a nightmarish date I had just one summer when I was still in college: I was invited to a woman’s home for dinner and I proceeded to accidentally drop and shatter her blender, destroy her telephone, and spill food all over her dining room floor. Afterward, I tried to make up for my clumsiness by taking her out for dessert. On the way, I stopped for gas. After filling up the tank, I left the nozzle in the tank of my car and drove off, breaking the nozzle. The cashier ran after me, screaming and flailing his arms like he was on fire. I didn’t have enough money to pay for the damage and didn’t have a credit card. This was before the debit card era, so the three of us – me and my date in the front, the Iranian gas station attendant in the backseat – drove a few miles down Wilshire Boulevard to my bank, where I took out $100 to pay for the broken nozzle. We returned to the gas station to drop off the cashier and get a receipt and sign a few papers. And then we got ice cream.

I loved to tell this story on first dates for three reasons: first, it made my dates laugh; second, it showed them I didn’t take myself too seriously and could laugh at myself; and third, our date was bound to be much better in contrast.

Often, people share one major, defining narrative, a story that they feel defines their lives. As John Barth wrote, “Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.”

The American defining narrative is simple: we were a bunch of scattered colonists living under British rule, but we came together and demanded freedom and independence. Our unity helped us not only to beat the British, but to grow into a large, prosperous nation. That founding narrative, boiled down to five words – we fought to be free – provides the backbone for much of American politics. Land of the free. Home of the brave. It defines what we think we are supposed to be.

My brother’s defining narrative – I’ve heard it many times over the years – goes something like this: when he and his wife got engaged, they decided to quit their jobs, move to San Francisco, and start a new life there. Their parents were shocked and told them it was reckless. They went anyway. No jobs. No place to live. No savings. Rising debt. But they believed in themselves. And soon, my brother found a great job and his wife opened a photography studio in their loft apartment. They were happy. Stressed, but happy. The job my brother found established his reputation as a dynamic, smart professional and helped him later become one of the youngest Senior Vice Presidents in the history of Disney. They moved back to Los Angeles, built a home and a family, richer from the risks they took.

Their story says the following: they weren’t afraid of risk and change, and in turn, they succeeded. It is a narrative that defines not only their relationship, but how they look at life. For them, as my sister-in-law likes to say, “change is good.” Risk is good. Believing in themselves brings success. It’s not just a story, it’s an outlook on life.

All of these examples remind me that the storytelling process is natural and intuitive. We tell stories every day, and our stories have underlying themes and meaning. But writers often go out of our way to make the process difficult and complicated. We tend to overthink things and try to invent new ways to do something that we already do all the time. We try a little too hard to construct “gotcha” ledes and memorable closing lines, rather than focusing more on the story that flows in between.

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