Telling Stories

Here’s something that might make you smile a little. Let me know if it does.

                                                            Telling Stories

            “Hello, although we’ve met many times before, we’ve never been formally introduced.  I am “The Narrator.”  Sometimes known as the “Unseen Narrator” or “The Third Person.”   I am as old as the Appalachian Mountains which, of course, are older than the Rockies.  See, right there, that’s the kind of knowledge and explanation I bring to stories.  You might never have known that.  Oh, and natives pronounce it Appa-Latch-an, not Appa-laich-an.   Another piece of information I can share with you, so you will enjoy your reading more. 

            Homer and I collaborated on “The Iliad.” I gave Virgil voice in “The Aeneid.  Kipling and I worked together many times.  Hemingway, Joyce, et alia.  I’ve worked with all the greats, near greats, and not so greats.  You, yourself, have used me on occasion.  Yes, sometimes I do feel used and abused, especially if the author has little or no talent.  It’s like someone telling a joke and mangling the punch line.  Still, everyone has the right to tell a story and, if they work with me, I can help them explain things somewhat better.  

            Of course, it’s easier to work with me than trying to tell a story in the first person.  For example, in the first person how can you explain what someone else is thinking?  You say things like, ‘He looks like he’s thinking about….’ or, ‘I can tell from the pained expression on his face that he is remembering….’   But you can’t really explain the nuances necessary to the plot unless you’re into the minds of each of the actors in the story, and then, Wow!  That’s difficult for the reader to follow.  You end up telling a story in the first person from multiple perspectives.  That’s Virginia Woolf, Thomas Wolfe and Faulkner.  Difficult reads all.  Modernism they call it.  I don’t see why what was good enough for telling epics like ‘Gilgamesh,’ ‘The Iliad’ and a thousand other great reads, isn’t good enough for most authors.  It’s like music, where composers keep exploring new ways to get people to tap their feet or jump up and down.  Those most successful aren’t those who try atonal things, but those who introduce rhythmic beats from other cultures that are not often heard in ours’.  It is like authors who write dialect.  Sometimes the dialect is just too unfamiliar to a reader, and that puts the reader off. Take, for example, Kipling’s “Soldiers Three.”  A ripping story of British regimental life, told from the perspective of three common soldiers in those soldiers’ English dialects.  I’m sure the book sold well enough in late nineteenth century London, but I doubt it had much success elsewhere, because the dialect is so foreign as to almost constitute being another language.  Other’s though bring it off well.  

            On the other hand, someone like Paul Simon travels to South Africa and brings back a rhythmic tribal beat that speaks to the musical soul of many.  He has a hit on his hands.  It’s like the telling of a story.  Often it isn’t what you say, but how you say it.  There is, for example, the story of the new admission to a veterans’ hospital who notices that three or four times a day someone in one of the beds will yell out a number and everyone on the ward breaks out laughing.  So, he asks the fellow in the next bed, “What’s going on?”  

            “Oh, the fellow says, some of us have been here so long we were telling the same stories and jokes, over and over.  We finally just gave them numbers. Now if a joke or one of the stories is applicable, we just yell out the number.  Do you want to try it?”  

            “Sure, but what do I say?”  The newbie asked.

            “Well, 99 is always a good one.”  

            So, the new patient yells, “99!”  No response.

“Try it again,” his new friend says.

“99!!!”  he yells again.  No response.

            So, the long timer raises his voice slightly and asks, “99?” and brings down the house.

Flabbergasted the new man asks, “So how come you get a laugh and I get silence?”

Nonplussed the long-timer answers, “Some people can tell a joke and others can’t.  Sometimes it’s all in the delivery.  Yeah, you need to work on your delivery.”

            It’s the same in writing.  Some people can tell a story and others can’t.  I worked with this kid once.  He had a big nose.  Kept wanting to start his novel with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Now that works for some, but for him, nope, wasn’t working.  I suggested he stick with writing jokes for this cartoonist he knew.  Last I heard he had made enough on that gig to invest in a second Old Master’s painting for his living room.  

            And speaking of cartoon panel writing it is, in a way, one of the most difficult styles.  With today’s computers, it’s easy to spew words onto the page in a comprehensible fashion but writing succinctly is decidedly difficult.  Everyone, today, is writing multiple line sentences when they should be writing short descriptive ones.  Brevity sells in a culture where 144 words define communications. 

             So, you see, writing for comic books and cartoon panels was a foreshadowing of what written communications would come to be in the 21st century.  Of course, having a picture, especially a brightly colored one, helps tremendously.  I don’t know about a picture and a thousand words any more than Helen of Troy’s face and a thousand ships, but certainly it helps.  I’m not that much involved in producing cartoons since most of the action strips are in first person.  I do get some work from the “New Yorker” from time to time but that’s not what pays the rent. 

            I offer you a lot of techniques and devices not available in the first person.  “Fore shadowing for example or, as I’ve already noted, the ability to describe the thoughts of others.  You have no idea how many times I’ve wanted to shout, “Don’t go in there!!” or “Don’t do that!!”  Because, you see, I know what’s coming.  It’s a burden, sometimes, knowing the end of the story in advance, that is.  It can be a burden because if it’s good you want to rush and get there.  If it’s sad, not so much.  You drag your feet along trying to make the, if not good at least, adequate times last before the heartrending ending occurs.  In fact, I have to help the author maintain a steady pace whether the story ends with a wry smile, belly laugh or the dropped shoulder feeling of emptiness for the reader. 

            At the moment, I’m working with a number of people.  You wouldn’t be surprised to learn the numbers of baby boomers who think of themselves as historically important people. In the last decade, I went through an upsurge in WWII era folks writing about their experiences, but that “Greatest Generation” has begun to travel on, so now we have the baby boomers deciding to tell their stories.  Now every two out of three was ardently anti-Vietnam.  And more than that, just plain anti-authoritarian.  That is to hear them tell it now.  They burned their draft cards and the women, feeling left out, burned their bras to flaunt authority.  How dare anyone tell them to wear a bra!!  Still, today, how many of them do you think are going braless??  “Turn on, tune in and drop out!!  That was the cry across college campuses.  And, for the most part, they’re choosing to tell their stories in the first person, thereby avoiding my predilection for correct historical context.  Truth be known, most of those writing their memoirs were moral cowards, and the memoir is an attempt to rationalize for themselves and their children the behavior they displayed during those times.   For example, they write about the “betrayal” they felt by their government, while they were enjoying their draft deferred status as a college student being financed, at least in part, by a National Defense Student Loan.  They triumph in retelling the glory of their sit-ins, and the storming of the administration building.  Some, like William Ayers, he of the gold earring, come on! I mean a seventy-five-year-old man sporting an earring!?  The “Jesse James Gang” indeed!  That’s what Ayers called his underground group.  The “Jesse James Gang.”  Now this is where my perspective as an independent narrator would be important in the telling of such stories.  Ayers, who has a degree in American Studies from the University of Michigan, seems to have bought into the myth of Jesse James as anti-corporate hero.  Strange that a Chicago native, schooled in an exclusive private school, and at the U of Michigan would choose a Confederate irregular, the son of a slave holder, as his paragon.  An independent narrator would have questioned the choice and perhaps asked why Ayers would champion a defender of slavery as his model for resistance to corporate power.   Perhaps he thinks the earring makes him look like a pirate, an irregular, or as they were known among Federalists, “a Bushwhacker.”  Bushwhacker.  Amazing, isn’t it, how a little third person reasoning can put things their proper perspective.  

            Yes, the baby boomers are an intriguing bunch.  I keep thinking, though, about the theme of betrayal.  Who was betrayed more, the deferred college student who is now proud of his imagined resistance, or the drafted soldier who is now proud of his service?  And what of the volunteers?  Yes, there’s a lot of rationalization in first person narratives, especially those of the baby boomers. 

            But, thankfully, baby boomer inflated imaginings aside, there are more fun things I’m involved with, for example: 

            With “Gun and Garden” magazine becoming a big hit there are lots of people writing stories about their dogs.  I’m working with this one fellow who is writing about his dog “Tailwagger Jack” who is a cross between a Labrador and a Border Collie.  The writer calls him a Borderdor.  There’s a lot of potential there.  He tried a first-person account from Tailwagger Jack’s perspective, but it left a great deal to be desired when trying to express an overall perspective of happenings.  So, now he’s turned back to me and we’re working on the story of Jack, a bear and a groundhog.  See Jack’s forever after this ground hog in the lower meadow, and one day he’s got him cut off from his nearest burrow entrance, but then this bear…  But hey, why should I tell you the story now.  Look for it on Amazon, with other stories, in “The Adventures of Tailwagger Jack.”

            So, when YOU decide to sit down and write something don’t fool with that first-person stuff.  Contact me.  My rates are reasonable, and I’ll help you tell a much more comprehensive and readable tale.  I may even let you start your story, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

2 thoughts

  1. The African rhythms of Paul Simons’ Graceland (the song) were enhanced by the high harmony of Don and Phil Everly.

    – Your Third Party Narrator

    1. I love them all but most of all I’m a Kodachrome sort of guy which is Simon doing the Everly’s.

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