What’s the Story Here?

When I was twenty and working at a newspaper in Michigan, I was assigned to cover a belly dancing class at the library. I arrived to a henna-haired women in her late fifties whooshing colored scarves around and instructing the four children who were participating. Four children. How was I supposed to write a story about this? I stayed for the class, pried some pithy and cute quotes from the kids and then returned to the newspaper. I told my gruff but lovable editor that I didn’t think it warranted a story to which he gruffly replied that I was going to write the story because they had planned for it and would otherwise have an empty space in the paper. Not to mention, wouldn’t you know, bright colors and dancing cute kids actually made for some pretty photos.

I had written stories on things that weren’t particularly newsworthy before. A cranberry festival. A local painter who thrust a stack of handwritten notes at me when I arrived and suggested I use his words as my story. So I churned out 400 words on something about the belly dancing class. Maybe it was about the health benefits of dance, the emergence of an appreciation for eastern activities in Western Michigan, or how the library needs to do a better job promoting its activities.

I can’t even begin to count the number of droning FDA meetings and congressional committees  that I covered when working in Washington, DC, many of which had all the zest of boiled rice, and I always managed to write something. Or the number of times I read a medical jargony study or talked to a researcher or doctor who hardly used any real person words. It might take some work to see it, but there is always a story.

I used to go on terrible dates and on my walks home, in between thinking how I’d be alone forever, I’d pretend I was writing the date as a news story. Having a good story from a wretched date always made the whole situation better.

WASHINGTON — An Iowa man is questioning is decision to relocate to Washington DC after a woman he was on a date with failed to laugh at his story about how he likes to yell “Fag!” every time a VW Bug drives by.

“I’d heard girls in DC were stuck up, but I realized it was true as this bitch got up from the table at Vapiano’s, told me my stories aren’t funny and walked away,” the man said. “I still paid for her wine though.”

This ability to spot a story came in especially handy when I was recently in Paris as part of my MFA program. I don’t know why I didn’t consider when I enrolled in grad school that I’d be studying literature and writing from a theoretical and at times philosophical perspective. I am not used to being presented information in this way. I spent the week listening to some lectures that were brilliant, thought-provoking and perception-changing. Then there were others that were like a table of junk at a flea market – I had the feeling there was something really good buried in there, but did I want to dig through dusty toys and half-paired socks to find it? While I darted out the door to get a between classes Nutella crepe, I would think: What the heck was that about? And then I would formulate in my head what the main point was and think how I’d write it up as a news story if I had to.

In my new life of moving to new places frequently, I can’t underestimate the importance of this story-spotting and storytelling ability. I am, after all, writing a book inspired by our time in Yemen. And blog posts based on my time here in Madrid. And sometimes there is crossover, like when I wrote a scene in my book where the main character is lost at a market in Yemen, which was inspired by the range of feelings I experienced during several utter directional fails here in Spain.

So maybe it’s funny that I can’t quite stop my rambling and put into words what this particular blog post is about. If I had to summarize, I’d say: The ability to recognize what the “story” is comes in handy in nearly all areas of life.

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