Today’s issue of the Writer’s Almanac is brilliant, thought-provoking and free. I have resolved to avoid describing people harshly on this blog, but if you don’t subscribe, you’re a . . . – ahh, well, let’s just say you’re depriving yourself of a daily read that educates, enlightens, and inspires.
What happens to stories that don’t get told? What does the deprivation of a tale do to the fabric of the world?
A week ago yesterday, a friend I had never met died. (The story of our friendship is an odd one, but unimportant to anyone but me. We became close friends very quickly, and I grew to greatly admire her. We planned to meet on Monday, but my email suggesting a lunch location went unanswered, lost in a dead woman’s email.) She went off the road on a quiet highway in Texas, struck a telephone pole and her car burned. I have chatted with her sister on Facebook, and we have decided that she must have been unconscious or dead immediately after the accident, before she could suffer and before the flames touched her. Some stories are almost necessary for the living, and it makes the most sense.
But what could it have been that put her on that highway at that time, when she was so exhausted that she probably fell asleep? Her sister and I figured it out from our separate bits of information. It changed a useless and simply sad death into something noble and inspirational. She was on that road at that time to help someone – when she died, she was doing something kind and selfless. At the hour of her death, she had chosen to go above and beyond what any reasonable person would do to accomplish something good in this world rather than take care of her own comfort and convenience.
That story, which would have died in the car with my friend had her sister and I not blundered into it, brought a dram of peace and goodness to a death which remains sharply painful.
In the context of all that happens in the world, how do stories gain importance and value? Everything that happens is a potential story, but 99.99% of what happens is unworthy of remembrance. Nobody wants to hear the story of how you chose what to eat for dinner (though some Twitter fans don’t yet realize that).
Amidst the fire-hose rush of information coming at us every day, great stories pass over us without notice. Today is the birthday of Randy Shilts, who was the first major journalist to notice and cover the rise of AIDS. He paid attention. He got the story. He once said, “I view my role in life as writing stories that wouldn’t get written unless I [write] them.”
How many laid-off journalists are missing their opportunity – their calling – to find and write those stories today? How many working journalists are too busy filing their 3-paragraph blog entries to focus on, or even notice, important stories in our world? Can a thousand bloggers equal one Randy Shilts? We appear to have rolled the societal dice; may it please be so.
Also on this date, in 1946, Harold Ross, a New Yorker editor wrote a memo to John Hersey about his soon-to-be-published story on Hiroshima. He asked that Hersey tell not just the big story of what happened, but to tell the smaller, literal stories of how 100,000 people died. He asked for a description of the victims’ vomiting. He wanted to know “how many were killed by being hit by hard objects, how many by burns, how many by concussion, or shock, or whatever it was?”
The result of that editor’s insistence on memorable details was world-changing. The author later wrote, “What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it’s been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”
Had Harold Ross not sought the story, and had John Hersey not recorded it so vividly, that story would have been lost in the rush of other details. The New Yorker could have filled its pages with stories of celebrity deaths and fashion trends, and nobody would have been the wiser.
Nobody would have been the wiser.