When Is a Story a Story?

When an audience of some form says yes.

That’s an obvious answer, but not always embraced for its veracity. Let’s extend this line of thinking: when is a writer a writer? When he writes; or when an audience of some form says yes? This leads me to a perplexing commentary written in a post by David Wong and forwarded to me by my son. The content was both troubling and humbling.

In summary, Wong’s post suggests that the world responds to us based upon what we have to offer; the world is only interested in what we have to offer. David Wong writes “Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving, and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold. Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere.”

David uses the analogy of the troubled young man who does not understand why the good looking girls never give him a passing glance, and they are dating these jerks. Why? Because that Jerk apparently has something to offer the song lady needs. He calls our attention to an Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, for which Baldwin was nominated for an Oscar, despite this being the only scene he appears in throughout the movie.

Call it an uncomfortable truth. The scene can be viewed on two levels. Most will see Baldwin as evil, and representing all that is materialistic and insensitive in this culture. Some will applaud his uncompromising, unvarnished, and tell-it-like-it-is style as motivational!

There is no apparent need for my writing at this moment, so I am being less than honest if I say I’m a writer. Let me quote Wong again: “the point is that the difference in those two attitudes — bitter vs. motivated — largely determines whether or not you’ll succeed in the world.” A marketing guru once called it finding the need that hurts. I prefer the more insightful phrase “A crack in the narrative.” Truth and need – especially one that hurts – are very closely related.

The crack in a narrative was a comment I heard on a Tim Ferriss podcast. It refers to an interviewing technique where the questioning technique reveals a break in the narrative because truth comes popping through, unexpectedly, unabashed, honest, and that truth will invariably reveal a human need.

One of my writing interests is Donald Ross, and that interest actually extends to appearing as Donald Ross – he died in 1948! He was a humble incomer from Dornoch Scotland who was persuaded to come to America and teach golf, maintain courses, make clubs, etc. When he got here, he began designing courses and some four hundred courses later, he had created Pinehurst, North Carolina as the cradle of American Golf, and given the golf world the famous No. 2 course, one that did not have grass greens until 1935! Prior to coming to this country, Ross had never designed a course in his life. He witnessed Old Tom Morris design Dornoch and St. Andrews, and was apprenticed to both him and Robert Forgan – the golf club maker. He was given the job of renovating Oakley in Boton because he was Scottish, and of course golf was born in Scotland, so the Scotsmen must know what there is to know about golf. Right? Ross created it from memory and his own singular passion for the game he grew up with in Scotland. At the turn of the Twentieth Century America was just embracing golf, Donald used his particular imagination and skill to run the table, so to speak, during Golf’s golden years.

If you’re not producing something of value that is needed, you’re not producing. You can be bitter about that and make excuses to the effect that you don’t have the time or the money… neither did Donald Ross, he had seven dollars in his pocket when he arrived in Boston. He produced what people needed in an imaginative and stirring fashion, revered to this day. Produce or you have no value. Don’t make excuses. “Saying that you’re a nice guy is like a restaurant whose only selling point is that the food doesn’t make you sick,” -David Wong.

There is a counter-point to this article’s content, and I must mention this argument.

To say that this is all about making money is to miss the point. Some products produced are subtle, ardently needed, but often fly beneath the radar because we’re more interested in “flash.” Circumstances have put me in contact with amazingly compassionate individuals who work for Hospice, and whose talents enable them to care for the terminally ill. There will always be a job for them, because our world desperately needs a better way to handle the end of life scenario. This is a basic need, a crack in the narrative of life that needs attention, but gets little. These dedicated workers often fly beneath the radar, much like the truly talented teachers in our public schools. These workers don’t earn much money, but they are in demand and often used to the point of burn out. You see, the world is only interested in what we bring to the party. We have needs and assign value based on who services those needs. And really, the point is not really money, its producing a product based upon your special talents that have a place in this world.

It does give me pause that we need to see such violence on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays in the form of football. Look at the value we assign to that need when people sign contracts for 80 or 120 million dollars! Who is worth 120 million dollars? Really?

My troubling and humbling experience then is finding the value in what I write that people might use what I write, and use it often. It’s a journey, I suspect. I may never find that voice, or even if I do, the world might not find me. I suspect there is some luck involved. I had some very good luck in my lifetime; I just hope it hasn’t been used! It scares me when I think that I might not have that unique talent… When is my story a story? When an audience says yes. That is the sign of a journey, not an end product. It is a quest.

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