Telling Stories (Part 1: The Confusions)

How is it that you tell a story?
What stories do you tell? What stories get left behind?
A myriad questions come to mind when I try to think of a story. Or stories. To tell.
Ultimately, I stand befuddled in tongue-tied confusion. Wanting to tell all and able to tell none.
All those stories in my head.
Recently, I’ve been able to figure out why. It all dawned on me in a single moment.

A woman thinking

I’m getting out of the train at the World Trade Center PATH station. It’s waves of people rushing out the doors stepping out with me meeting waves of faces waiting to get in. It’s waves of arms, legs, backpacks, boots, elbows, yellow caution lines and discarded metro cards on the floor (being trampled on incessantly by boots), a confusion of emergency phones on pillars, maps and defibrillator boxes all rushing at me in the crowd as I move forward.

Then, the feeling of moving up flights of steps and ramps and wide concourses, rising with the tide of people all the while saving my feet and elbows from getting jammed against suitcases on wheels and pointy heels and sharp corners of cardboard boxes. Finally the lightness of being deposited like a cork with the tide at the turnstiles.

Then moving up, and up, and up on the great escalators towards the surface from the bowels of the earth.

It’s then, when I’m very high above the turnstile level that something happens to me and I turn back. Always.

Most people don’t turn but there’s always the rare person that does. Some probably suffer from vertigo at this level seeing such a vast, open space behind them.

Those that do turn back, I suspect, are somewhat like me. [Maybe I’ll follow them down the road someday on Chruch St., or Vesey St., or Greenwich St., and ask: “Excuse me Sir, why do you always look back? Why do you do it?” Just to see if they turn back for the same reason as me.]

The scene down below is hypnotic.

When I look behind me I see a great sea of heads. Medium-sized dots that become smaller and smaller as I rise upward, moving in the direction of the escalators, all bent forward determinedly, weaving through the great waves of people, each at first indistinguishable from the rest, a mass of dark shapes, male, female, age, race, ethnicity, culture–all  a blur, just a sea of humanity. Many streams converging, forceful, rushed, slow, fast, darting, lost, all determined to get out.

When I look at the sea from this high up, I take a deep breath, as though of freedom from it all. There is power in the freedom and the clean air up here. And there is a godlike vantage point at being able to make it all not matter, all homogenous, only direction driven, being separate from it all and yet being all-seeing, turning people into moving dots.

But then recent memory interferes.

I was down there. And I’m still tied to it all.

I know how to look closer. From the inside. Be there. For I was there just moments ago.

There’s a woman rushing along with her lunch box slung from her shoulder probably late for work. She looks like she probably dropped off her daughter to school and ran late despite standing in the express lane at the grocery store just before taking the train. There’s a man next to the turnstile in a fluorescent dress, clearly a construction worker, who has come down from the construction site above for a quick chat with a transportation employee he knows from back home in Trinidad. There’s a young man in an impeccable suit unsure how to swipe the metro cards, probably here for an interview from out of town. And there’s a super excited kid whose head I can see bobbing up and down at the prospect of riding such high escalators, his darting form a contrast to all the glumness at rush hour.

A whole collection of random stories. Many unrelated lives that have intersected randomly at this station.

Too many people. Too many stories. Too many perspectives. Within, without, seen from above, seen from below, comic, tragic, or just an amorphous mass. Random like it is.


We are always immersed in this something which is chaotic, which moves in multiple directions, which emerges out of intersections of innumerable things, which, for the lack of a better term, we call life. A meeting of related and unrelated events intersecting in many places many ways, real or virtual or imaginary, in settings real or imagined.

Hard to grasp, hard to describe comprehensively, understood very little.

Does all  this randomness just mean that we’re alive?

Yet, when we remember the past, imagine the future and describe the present, we think of a story. As though it all hangs together. And when we tell that story, we cut a form out of the chaos and pare out the rest, like picking out the yarns of sugar from a cotton candy machine. All pink and perfect or just a blob, apparently shapeless. Just the way we want it.

We pick some threads and leave the rest. So the stories we spin with those yarns are neither false nor true because by themselves they mean nothing like what they did when they were with the rest of the unformed mass back in the machine.

We pick the yarns that we know, the ones that speak to us. We don’t want the rest.

There are ones we don’t even see.

But is it just in crowded places with a superabundance of people that stories overflow the mind and befuddle the storyteller trying to grasp at a shape or form of something that has none?

[Continued on my next post: Telling Stories: (Part 2: The Arrangements) ]

61 thoughts on “Telling Stories (Part 1: The Confusions)”

  1. Beautiful!

    It’s hard to tell whether we write our stories or those stories write us … There is always a point when the story starts writing itself; it makes us its protagonist. In its urge to reach a finishing point, the story commands us to think, feel, and act in bizarre ways.

    While the story is writing us, we start dabbling with another story, and yet another story, and in the course of multiple inceptions, we’re written and edited many times. The beauty of this matrix is every time you end up where you started—but as a different person; with new and yet familiar pain points; colored with different shades of transient pleasures; hungry for lasting joys.

    Another intriguing truth is the resemblance between all stories; their underlying cause is one and single! And it’s this mesmerizing truth that binds all parallel stories in our life with a common thread. This thread also crosses boundaries, and ties knots with other threads of other lives. This thread binds us with events, places, and people.

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  2. “But is it just in crowded places with a superabundance of people that stories overflow the mind and befuddle the storyteller trying to grasp at a shape or form of something that has none?”

    No this happens to me pretty much anywhere I am.
    But I do not believe this grasping is for something that has no shape or form. I choose, or perhaps am chosen, to believe that the very fact that we do grasp implies there is a shape, a form, something to be reached. The sculptor sees his masterpiece already complete in uncut stone and chisels away at what is not. For my part, I need faith, I need hope, I need love and they speak to me, that rather than believing our reaching is for an illusion, believe that the reaching was put there so we might find the order behind what merely appears chaotic. The illusion is that the scene is haphazard. And even the scene you paint, the words you choose to describe it, the reality itself, the very locale, are not at all random but imply, by their very nature, the opposite. Steel, concrete, rubber, glass combined with the effort of humanity to build a way for the masses to move about our tiny piece of space rock. We may be insignificant-I do not think so but it is possible-but random I will never concede to. I do not offer my heart as anything like proof but something there makes me incapable of agreeing with that notion. All we know we know by faith, all we have is because we stand on the shoulders of those before us who hoped for something greater, and all that is exists because love cannot help but share itself.

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  3. This is interesting. But funny enough I rarely ever look back. For me when I see people as the “whole” I literally pause, take a look, imagine, and then jump right in. I’ve had this urge my entire life to be apart of every life story, as impossible as that may be. The insignificant is even monumental to me. And when I’m done, I move on. But I don’t look back, because those brief random moments of life I was apart of, have become a part of me. And what I have taken helps me to better make a personal connection to the seemingly random around me.

    And sometimes I wonder if my way of connecting with people makes me so reluctant to end a story. Because if everything becomes a part of me, maybe in some subconscious level I feel like I’m ending my story. Who knows. But I enjoyed your post.


  4. I was in Nepal from India this time two years ago with my physics class friend and we were spending our last days in Pokhara before returning to India. Pokhara is built around a huge and beautiful lake, and the Himalayan foothills that the lake is nestled in make for one of the best paragliding spots in the world so I was told (I’d really like to go sometime!). I spent a few hours watching them circle from a dock on the lake in the early afternoon one day, and then I decided I was going to pick one as they were running off the cliff, and just watch it the whole way until they touched down at the bottom. This might have been no easy feat, because I had thought about what it was like to look at them all in a lazy way, but the one that went of the cliff was red with a black stripe across the center of the bow.

    It circled around with a few other paragliders while they were riding the thermals up off the cliff, but then it broke away, and just kept circling up. There was a cloud bank just above them, and I though, “there’s no way it is going into that cloud. What would you do paragliding inside of a cloud?” But then it cycled into the cloud! It was incredible to watch, and the feeling; they just arced into the foot of a cloud and out, but was it exciting for me! I had just spent more than two hours watching paragliders, and then I saw one fly into a cloud! Incredible!

    I took a kayak out on the lake, and then went back to the guest-house before sundown looking for my friend. I didn’t see him, so I was going to eat some dinner and enjoy the rather pleasant Pokhara evenings. I had walked all the way down the alley and was turning on to the main street, when in the old brick fountain alcove right there in the middle of the main street beside the corner, I heard this swedish woman animatedly talking about paragliding to a nepali man, and I liked the corner, so I slowed to listen. She said, “and then he took us into the cloud,” and I stepped up and asked, “was it red with a black stripe?” “Yes!” She told me it had been her paragliding pilot’s birthday, and he asked her if she wanted to do something special ^_^. She was already happy before I told her the news, but I was very satisfied with my idle gazing having become personalized like that. ^_^


    1. Despite the title of this blog post, I’m afraid this isn’t a forum for telling stories. I hope you’ve saved a copy of this. In case you haven’t, please save it by tomorrow. I’m going to delete it after that.


  5. Nice post, I’m looking forward to part 2. Me? When I’m leaving the compression of the subway at rush hour I’m escaping, never look back–but always, always, there’s someone. Something that captured me on the train, platform, or stairs that I’ll take with me; either as a thread to begin a new story or to weave in to one that’s in progress.


  6. A shared experience is a perfect experience. You catch the mood of your journey well and your observations ring true with the lives of so many people. We all however work on the assumption that an experience occurs just the once but how would we feel if we knew that it occurred slightly differently an infinite amount of times? Every atom in the universe is in constant flux and it is likely that parts of that atom are in fact in more than one place at the same time. So if you had a pair of ‘multi-universe’ sunglasses on you may well be able to look down upon the ‘sea of heads ‘and observe that each head was in fact your own. I now need to go and lie down in a dark room for a while…….


  7. Really liked this post. I’m new at writing, been blogging for a couple of years about Louisa May Alcott where the burning desire to write grew slowly, carefully. But it really started to explode when I started my second blog which is basically a dumping ground for all the other stories I want to write. I find my head exploding with ideas, just like you described. I have the Dragon Dictation app on my phone to capture any ideas because I tend to brainstorm most when I’m driving. I always talk out my ideas so this works really well for me. I capture whatever I can and store it on Evernote. Now just need to make the decision to develop some of these ideas.


  8. Some powerfully provocative thoughts, here. I can’t tell offhand whether I am a back-looker or not … that will need some introspection.
    Definitely a thread-grabber, of course.


  9. Superb imagery and I would think a mere hint of your writing talent. You capture the interest quickly with your words and hold it. I’ll check in to follow.


  10. Overwhelming opportunity for storys in a that crowd. Who can know each story and tell it well? Picking the threads, as mentioned, is like that metaphor about drinking from a firehose. I look forward to the continuation. Good job!


  11. I sincerely hope that someday you do ask another random “look-back-er” in the subway. I have moments like those when I really look at the people around me and think of how they have lives and stories that I will never know, infinite possibilities to be explored. I love how you put that feeling into words, that we as storytellers see certain yarns, and others see different ones, and then we take the threads and colors that we want to make a story. Everyone has their own perspective, but we are all still connected. Beautiful! This kind of writing and perspective is exactly why I am a writer.


  12. This was wonderful. I couldn’t stop reading. I like the way you describe reality – absolutely anything is possible, absolutely nothing need be discounted, your creativity – and yet writerly control – obviously knows no bounds.


  13. Great observations. I became fascinated with the way we find stories, too, at one point writing one a day for a year. As a fiction writer the question I’m always asking of the things I experience is ‘what’s the story in that? Your looking back on chaos analogy represents the difficulty sifting stories from the mass of experience. Thanks for such a considered piece.


  14. Hi Bottled – that opening reminded me of Mezzanine – nice writing 🙂
    I don’t think it’s just in crowds. I think life is fractal. The large holds the small, the small holds the large – all things are in every part of all things – the universe in a grain of sand, a child’s sigh in the thrum of a galaxy.
    Our minds are finite – but within all our works is the infinite because it can be seen by all minds.
    Wow, I seem to be terribly transcendental all of a sudden – I must lie down… ROS


  15. The beauty you see is a sign of humanity created in the breathless image of God. The cacophony is the result of humanity turning its back on that same God. The yearning inside you is the natural desire to be known by the God Who created you. The question is, will you respond? Will you let Him write your story? This is what I see in the faces of humanity. It gives me chills!

    “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” Romans 1:18-22


    1. I’m not Christian (and thus completely unfamiliar with the quote from the New Testament) but this post also had me thinking of G-d, in a somewhat different context.

      Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen once described being an author as being like G-d on a certain level. To a believer, G-d has organized and designed the entire universe. Every detail is there for a reason. There is an underlying structure. He has compassion for his creations, but puts them through trials in order to provide opportunities for growth and change. There is an intended goal for the whole process.

      An author focuses on one central character (or a handful of them) and then selects details and experiences for the character to experiences to guide them towards the goal. Yes, in real life, there are many stories going on simultaneously, often interwoven. But as an author, you are a creator, with the ability to populate your world in a particular way, and to focus only on the essential bits for your story. I have found this not only is this enormously helpful as a writer, but when editing, as well.


      1. I agree! Because we are created “in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27)” we have the ability to be mini creators! When we use these abilities–or any for that manner– as a form of worship to Him, we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were created! Many think that being a follower of Jesus is a drag, where we have to lay aside our freedoms like drones, but the truth is that we find true fulfillment by living in the way He has designed and commanded. A deep mystery, but one undeniably worth exploring!


      2. This discussion between you two has been very interesting to me. In fact, when I re-read Part 2 after reading your discussion again, I realized you guys had anticipated some of the ways in which I was seeing this too. Whether you see the storyteller in the position of an omniscient God, or as an omniscient author I was focusing on the difficulties of making individual stories emerge out of this whole, not quite knowing what that whole is.


  16. In memoir you are the thread taken from a family or small group. Your post holds true even for that genre. “There are ones we don’t even see.” In looking back you wish you had seen to better understand these characters who were in your life.
    Great post, thought provoking.


  17. So wonderfully crafted. I too find when I look up, down or back rather than straight ahead I gain inspiration. My mind wanders and tales emerge. If only I could capture them all, put them in a jar and save them for later.


  18. Thanks! This post really gets me to thinking about stories…on a whim, I took a couple of memoir workshops recently and the variety of viewpoints, time frames, voices, and content in the work of my fellow writers was fascinating. Telling stories about oneself in a memoir format vs. an essay or narrative nonfiction format is a subtle difference…somehow more intimate. Looking forward to the next post!


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