Thursday, June 11, 2009

"The Storyteller's Dilemma"

Yesterday, on the way to talking about something else – don’t ask me what, my memory’s sharper about things from forty years ago…oh, yeah, “Inspiration” – I happened to mention in passing that I stole a book – a paperback copy of Catch-22 – from a kiosk in a London subway station.

Regular readers may recall another personal adventure where I pilfered two published plays from the renowned London bookstore, Foyles.

A further dip into the Just Thinking archives would reveal my recounting that my mother, while shopping with me at Macy’s, departed the premises with an unpaid-for belt. She had gotten bored standing in the checkout line, and abruptly turned and headed for the exit. “Mom,” did you pay for that belt?” I inquired. “Not yet,” replied my mother. And she calmly proceeded out the door.

Today, I am stricken with a troubling realization. You add these three stories together and the Pomerantz’s would appear to be a family that steals.

The truth is, we’re not.

You have to believe me. We are not a pilfering family. My brother may have stolen things, but I have no knowledge of such activities. My Dad – well, he didn’t live that long – but I’m unaware of any pilfering on his part either. So at the very worst, only half my family steals – my mother and myself.

What did we accumulate from our wantonly nefarious actions? Two plays, a book and a belt. Should such paltry pickings tag us for eternity with the tarnishing label of “Thieves”?

I guess it should.

We did it.

We’re thieves.

The thing is, aside from those three inexplicable episodes, even the thieving members of our family

never stole anything else!

The troubling thing is this. Judging from those three stories, an unbiased and in no way anti-Semitic reader could reasonably come away with the belief that the Pomerantz’s are a family of chronic kleptomaniacs, who have to be carefully watched, or they’ll run away with anything that isn’t nailed down.

I’m telling you, that’s not us. We are, on the whole, a kind and generous family. I bought dozens of trees in Israel. My mother was the president of Hadassah.

We made three mistakes. That’s our entire “rap sheet.” Three missteps. Internationally. We’re totally clean in Canada.

Who then is to blame for this utterly misleading characterization of my family? I am. And I feel terrible about it. The misunderstanding is entirely my fault. But what can I do? I’m a storyteller.

And there it is. That’s the whole deal.

It all starts with that simple fact. I’m a storyteller. And storytellers tell stories. That’s where the attention comes from. And the love.

Boring stories get you nothing. “I bought Catch-22 at a kiosk in a London subway station. The line to pay was really long. While I waited, I opened my copy of Catch-22 and started reading it.”

That kind of story? – No attention, no love. That story gets you yawning. And a universal shunning of your blog.

On the other hand…

“I stole a book.”

Now you’re on to something. It’s colorful. It’s surprising. It’s picaresque. “What a scalawag. He stole a book.”

“And I stole two plays.”

“And my mother stole a belt!”

What’s a writer to do? You can’t talk about every single other time when they went into places and paid for everything. Who’d want to hear about that?

It’s simply the way it is. The best stories are unusual and compelling. But you mix those ingredients with the selection process of a needy storyteller, and what do you wind up with?

Stories whose cumulative effect suggests the Pomerantz’s will steal the fillings out of your teeth.

We won’t.

We’re nice people.

But I can’t prove that with my stories.

They’d bore the pants off ya.


Nancy said...

It's a good thing that you remember all the times you've stolen something. I can vividly remember mine and I have less than 9 incidents too.

The significance of tree buying as a generosity is a little lost on me. Were the other trees..lonely? You couldn't settle for a nice Canadian tree?

MikeThe Blogger said...

"The significance of tree buying as a generosity is a little lost on me. Were the other trees..lonely? You couldn't settle for a nice Canadian tree?" - ... Nancy, have you seen how many trees we have here in Canada? Heck, we cut down 4 million each year just for Christmas. But in reality, and I did not want to upset Earl and burst his bubble of "greening the earth", the 'trees" were actually "rifles" - a lot more important in Israel than Christmas trees.

A. Buck Short said...

Thank the dramatic arts. Had it been belt, book, and candle, instead of a double play, you would be going straight to hell for the transgressions – or maybe straight to Broadway?

“or they’ll run away with anything that isn’t nailed down.”

I grew up in a town where it was not uncommon on nearly every block for a working class Catholic family to install their annual centerpiece Christmas decoration, to wit, a nativity crèche in which Joseph, Mary, the Baby Jesus, three wise men and assorted barnyard animals of a wooly persuasion were all sheltered by the top half of a bathtub, sunk halfway into the ground to form a spectacularly arched proscenium diorama. Why you could hardly tell – as long as the faucet holes were confined to the subterrainian portion. I imagine this may also have been something of a French Canadian tradition up in your neck of the woods – with the caveat that the tub-sinking must be undertaken before the first frost.

After vandals had absconded with her Baby Jesus on the previous Christmas, a woman down the street vowed that if it happened again, she was going to nail it to the floor. Couldn’t help thinking, “Isn’t that pretty much how most of the trouble started?”

"aside from those three inexplicable episodes, even the thieving members of our family never stole anything else."

Have you ever wanted to enter the plea, “But officer, don’t I get credit for all the green lights I stopped at, even though I didn’t have to?”

Must confess, I too have been guilty of low crimes of a literary nature – accidentally pocketing your pen after borrowing it to sign something. Mea culpa.