Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mr. Posterity

Has it ever occurred to you that bare feet don't smell? No, it never occurred to me. Don't they get dirty? Nah, take off your shoes and let your dogs breathe. Danny shot me a look and said, that's no way to start a story. You've got to identify who's doing the talking first. You've got to situate the narrative voice in time and space. Otherwise you're gonna lose the reader. I answered, that's all well and good, but suppose you never had a reader in the first place? Really? That's a big problem. Danny came from a blue-collar background and couldn't abide theory. Who do you keep in your mind's eye when you write? I'm writing for Mr. Posterity. I'm scared that when I die, I'll be forgotten. I'm hoping the geezer will store these words of mine so people can find them and remember who wrote them, and see what life was like back in the day. I figure it only takes one person to keep a memory alive.

Danny said, that's a lovely thought, but no one will find your words in the future if you don't connect with the living now. You've got to tell a story. Otherwise, even Mr. Posterity is gonna get bored. Danny was full of pragmatic tips and tricks but I didn't want to follow his advice. I wanted to give my imaginary reader more credit than that.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here in New Jersey on a summer morning. August 20, 2010. It's been a dry season, everything in sight is tending toward yellow and brown and I'm struggling with my own sense of inadequacy in keeping the garden green. Danny is a made-up character, a composite of two people I know, one of them a businessman, the other an academic. The businessman used to run a printing business in New York City, but those days are gone. He had to shut it down because there was no business left. The academic was an English instructor at a college on Long Island. At first, he liked the work, even though the pay was lousy. He barely made enough money to cover the rent on his apartment in Carle Place. That's the dollop of verisimilitude that's supposed to con you into thinking I'm telling the truth, by the way. After a while, the kids got to him -- he claimed that they were incapable of learning anything -- and discouragement moved him to quit.

Danny leaned forward said, listen: don't you believe we're living in a world of trouble? Doesn't make a difference if it's fiction or not -- fiction is just as likely to get at the truth underneath the skin as straight reportage. He surveyed the living room. The light in this place is so bad it's making me sick in the head. I thought to myself, I can relate to that. Fiction comes in all guises: music, prose, greeting cards, film, dance, even video games. Call it the second life, lately indistinguishable from the first. Going down into the cesspit and coming up with a chocolate ice-cream cone, then writing about it. Danny said, nothing is as boring as a memoir about writing a memoir. You see that shite all the time these days.

The old Danny lives on, as real as can be, the incorrigible lout, the bad boy who shoplifted candy from the corner store, the A student who dropped acid and jumped off the railroad bridge in Reading and almost killed himself. It makes no difference if his last name was Hamilton or Rothberg, I remember his crooked smile and the easy way he had with girls. I learned a lot from him, mostly to fill my stories with verifiable details: street names, weather, car models, groceries. Make sure the ammo fits the gun, poot; you get the caliber wrong, you'll lose your readers.

After the printing business folded, Danny taught English for a spell, then went out to California and opened a second-hand bookstore near the beach in Encinatas. He specialized in marine books, seafaring, oceanography, exploration. His prize possession was a second edition of Captain Cook's
Voyages, printed in 1784. The world has gotten a helluva lot smaller since then, he'd say and light another cigaret. Has it ever occurred to you that all stories are true except for the ones advertised as such? He'd cackle and cough, who cares? If the truth ain't here, maybe it'll be in the hereafter.


  1. Yep, the truth is an illusion. Precision or Herculean efforts to portray the truth when relating to other people is often a joke. Story telling is more effective – as long as people relate to the story being told and the story telling is done conscientiously.

    As a recent example, I ran a workshop for a large automotive supplier in the “rust belt” last week. I presented survey data, shared anecdotes, and explained my analysis of technology trends, and recommended actions. We all knew the flaws in what I was doing and even discussed them openly.

    If the audience relates to the “story” because it hits a jugular and if the audience believes that you care about the same topics they care about – then the communication is meaningful and sufficiently credible. All that seems to matter is that they have a different way of seeing things that complements (and possibly enhances) their perspectives.

    Below is an interesting article from Harvard Business Review on this topic. I know that you intend this posting to address the broader issues of life. But, you might find the more narrowly scoped article below of interest.
    Storytelling That Moves People
    HBR Articles | Robert McKee, Bronwyn Fryer | Jun 01, 2003

  2. Thanks for the link Marc, I'm gonna check it out. I've been thinking about Machiavelli in hell this morning, trading stories with Plato, Cicero, etc. I'm hoping there'll be an antechamber there for mooks like you 'n me.