Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Story

When one of my literary gods, Chuck Palahniuk, spoke about Pygmy (2009), his book about a teenage foreign exchange student/secret assassin who works to destroy middle America, he told the story of the inspiration behind the novel.

The author was volunteering in a homeless soup kitchen about 10 years ago, and nobody there knew who he was. He didn't give anything away, and so the workers began making up stories, taking guesses at what was the story behind the man. Palahniuk said some believed he was a sex offender released from prison doing community work, or a murderer, or an arsonist. And he never corrected them or hinted at his innocence-- "I loved their stories better than the truth," he said. And so the character of Pygmy-- an undefined, mysterious, somewhat free character-- was born.

Anyone who knows me (or follows me on Twitter) knows I'm a journalism major with no interest whatsoever in being a journalist. It's the first thing I say when someone asks me what my major is, and a friend once told me it's as if I'm embarrassed people would think I want to be a journalist. It's not that. I just love fiction.

I'm taking a journalism course this semester, and so far we've been working on hard news stories. Yesterday, my professor announced we're starting with features, profiles and soft news. Everyone seemed equally uninterested as if he'd said we were continuing with hard news. Nobody in my class is pursuing a career in print journalism. Most want to be sports broadcast journalists, or want to work for Vogue, or wish to have their own cooking show (to each his own). I'm the only one pursuing fiction. I went into journalism at the suggestion of a beloved teacher who once told me it's a great foundation for creative writers. So far, I'm hating it. But I'm learning.

So yesterday, after noticing our carelessness, my professor oh-so-wisely said, "Everyone has a story." He slowly walked around our work table and then stopped, pointed, and asked one of my classmates, "You. What's your life's theme?"
The girl was embarrassed, put on the spot, and stuttered. "I don't know."
He didn't give us a moment to think, he just pointed and asked. Love, confusion, indecisiveness, hatred, independence, awesomeness (guess whose that was?). And then stories emerged. With soft voices at first, tentative, stories about testing out 11 different majors at four different universities. Stories about divorce, tragic (and shit- I mean tragic) family deaths, success, finding comfort in extraordinary places. Stories spilled out from these people I'm with every Monday and Wednesday for 2-and-a-half hours and always wonder what their stories are. Some people are surprised to hear stories from people they never really think about. I think about everyone I see-- it's annoying at times. I see people in the street or in my class, or in the pages of a book, and I want to know.

There's a boy in my class who wears a Spurs something every day-- Spurs jersey, Spurs hat, Spurs button, Spurs sweatshirt. He's fascinating. What does he like other than the Spurs?

There's a girl in my class with a perfect middle part in her perfectly even brown hair. She's fascinating. Does she have a problem with disorder, is she obsessed with perfection, would she freak if I walked up to her and messed up her perfect hair?

There's a boy in my class who writes notes to the girl who sits beside him every class, and thinks no one is noticing. I am. He's fascinating. Does he have a girlfriend and wishes he could cheat?

There's a girl in my class who's so loud and so, so skinny. She's fascinating. Does she overcompensate for her tiny figure with her booming voice? Is she a middle child, and why does she moisturize with her L'Occitane hand lotion so often? Does she suffer from chronic dryness?

These are the people who surround me every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, and yesterday, I learned their stories. Not all of their stories, and they were probably just tiny snippets of their lives, or maybe broken versions of the truth. But as they spoke, their voices changed. Maybe they had never been asked before. Maybe they had never thought they were worthy of an interview, or a profile, or to be the focus of class conversation.

Yesterday I found out journalism is not necessarily just in reading the newspaper or watching 60 Minutes. It's not about glorifying The New York Times or giving a 15 minute recap of what's going on in the Middle East. It's about stories. It's about asking hard questions, or any kind of question that might bring out a story, whether it be the truth-- or an incredible lie that just sounds far better than the truth. I remember reading Palahniuk wrote all of his books based on real research- hands-on, going to AA or Sex Addicts Anonymous, full-on research. He asked the uncomfortable questions. He pretends to be one of them. That was the beauty of Hunter S. Thompson's work too, wasn't it?

Stories are everywhere, in every one, behind every action and every decision, no matter how insignificant or worthy of worship one might appear to be. So maybe this journalism thing ain't so bad. I just wish we didn't have news quizzes every freakin' Monday.