When the folks at TOWN asked me to write a piece commemorating their 100th issue—and to make the subject of the essay the importance and value of stories—my first thought was, Why tell you something you already know? My second thought: But maybe you’ve forgotten. So here I am.
I believe we live in shaky, uncertain times for good stories and decent storytellers. Life around us accelerates at the speed of 280 characters per tweet. The Instagram “story” (eye roll intended) evaporates into the valueless ether after twenty-four hours. The parts of the brain (and the soul) meant to capture and contemplate good stories are so assaulted with wave after wave of innuendo and triviality and static, it’s often hard to separate the real from the unreal from the surreal.
Thankfully somewhere in the threads of our DNA, we’re inescapably hard-wired to love a truly good story. That stubborn strand of humanity that feeds on stories might, at times, become swamped by the muck of the modern world, but it is always there at the ready when we need it most. And lest you think I’ve become the proverbial old man, screaming at people to get off his metaphorical lawn, consider this: There ain’t a kid alive who looks up from her pillow at bedtime and whispers, “Mommy, read me your tweets,” or “Daddy, can I watch your Insta-feed until I fall asleep?” Ultimately, we—young and old—crave real, honest stories. And we never forget the good ones. All of us can probably name our favorite book as a kid. (Mine? Cowboy Sam.) That’s because we love the story between the covers—the beginnings and middles and ends populated by often unforgettable characters. Who doesn’t look forward to a happily-ever-after, because we started with a once-upon-a-time? We love stories because we can’t help ourselves. Lately, however, we seem to help ourselves less and less.
I don’t mean to sound an alarm for the death of stories. Just the opposite. Good stories well-told will always exist, because we will always need them. But the best of our stories take time—time to create them, time to tell them, time to savor them, time to preserve them. And these days, the insatiable demand for time far outweighs the meager supply, and for that simple reason, good stories are forced to fight harder and harder to be heard. But good lord, when a wonderful story—a gut-wrenching or heart-breaking or joy-producing or smile-inducing story—breaks through the twenty-first century cacophony . . . well, those are the good days to be human.
I do not descend from a long line of Southern raconteurs. My Granddaddy Scott, the northeast Alabama lawyer/foxhunter, bent the truth just enough to spin a good tale, but other than him, I don’t really have a roster of storytellers in my lineage. What I did have early on were people who happily listened to any story I told, no matter how crazy or impossible the plot. When I was four or five, my father and mother would come home from work, and once we were all seated at the dinner table, my father invariably asked, “So what did you have going on today?” That would be my daily cue to launch into a quarter hour of outright lies, stories that usually featured a Western theme (a nod to the aforementioned, obviously influential Cowboy Sam). I made up stories about meeting the sheriff down at the creek and forming a posse and chasing some random bad guy across York County. Sometimes I was the bad guy and had stopped robbing trains long enough to come home for my mother’s meatloaf. I owned a horse. And a pearl-handled six-gun.
Because we all have stories to tell, we suddenly have something in common, something that can magically shrink the distance between us and bring us together. Stories matter because they are a constant tie that binds.
Some twenty years later, when I was a graduate student, my fiction writing teacher, William Price Fox, told me, “If you can tell a joke, you can write a story.” It took me a few decades to understand how correct Wild Bill was. A good story, like a decent joke, makes an implicit promise to the people who receive it. A joke is a promise that you will laugh. A story is a promise of an unplanned journey, and the destination is someplace you’ve never been. Might be a temporary glimpse inside someone’s life. Might be a peek inside a different world. Might be an utter surprise.
Stories are important because of the promises they make to us, because of the journeys they provide the people who create them and those who enjoy hearing them. Stories preserve the past. Stories curate the present. Stories speculate about the future. And stories deserve to be respected. I wish I’d understood this when I was in Alabama fifty years ago, curled up with my granddaddy in his recliner. I would have written down some of his lies.
I don’t know if the people at TOWN would agree with me, but when you pick up (and I mean pick up in the literal sense, actually put the pages in your hands) a copy of their magazine, what you’re holding, above all else, is an anthology of wonderful slices of human nature revealed through words and pictures. After I read an issue, I come away more sure than ever of one thing: every person owns a story worth telling. (This isn’t a new idea. I’ve believed this for years. Give me a half hour with anybody, any stranger, and I’ll find their story.) Everyone, everywhere, has some burden they’re shouldering or some happiness they are bursting to share or some relative who always drinks too much wine at family reunions.
Listen, I realize not every person can tell a story, but every person possesses one. Do you see how the dots begin to connect? Because we all have stories to tell, we suddenly have something in common, something that can magically shrink the distance between us and bring us together. That is, finally, why stories matter: because they are a constant tie that binds. Now, more than any time I can recall, we need those ties.
But there are far more stories in the world than there are people to tell them. The way I look at it, that’s the reason for valuing and respecting the ones we are fortunate enough to enjoy, the ones that find their meandering way into the world. Sometimes I feel like good stories are like salmon swimming upstream to spawn. Only a few of them are gonna make it. The stories that complete that journey should be cherished. They are valuable. They entertain us. Feed our souls. Stir our curiosity. Make us human.
Look, I’m a writer, and I’m going to write stories whether they get read or not, whether they get published or not. It’s sort of an inescapable way of life. But please don’t ever take for granted the fact a magazine exists that gathers up stories and presents them to you like some sort of unexpected, once-a-month Christmas present. One hundred times, they’ve taken the time and effort to find stories and put them into our hands. I hope they have the energy for a few hundred more issues. There are a lot of damn good stories out there, waiting to be told.