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A Confederacy Of Dunces: An Open Letter To Storytellers

January 31st, 2009 (10:27 am)



All we do is try to tell the stories we wanted to tell.  Sometimes people don't want to hear the stories we want to tell.  Sometimes they are mad about which stories we choose to tell.  Sometimes they want us to tell them another story or the story you are telling but, differently.  Sometimes they don't want to listen.  Sometimes, and this is the worst time of the some, they want you to tell a story and they don't want to listen.  Sometimes this happens, storytellers.


We are not tough.  If we try to shout, shout the story we want to tell, we will hate ourselves.


We hope for the best.  We love to be asked to new places.  We don't mind waiting hours and hours to tell our story.  We don't mind following a band even when we know how awful that is.  We will not complain.  We hope that people are there to listen to stories and will listen to us.  When they don't, we don't shout, we don't complain, not then.  We don't make a scene, even when we are forgotten.


We are storytellers.  We are not always good talkers but we talk to our friends.  We don't piss and moan. We understand that sometimes things suck.  There are always duds. We compare and console and we laugh.  Before anything, before anything at all, we laugh.


My Mom told me today that when I was 8, I ate a banana peel whole, and when she asked me where the peel was, I started to run away and  I tripped and fell onto the floor.  My Mom laughed after she saw my eyes open    My shoes were tied together and my brother had a banana in his mouth. He laughed when my Mom laughed and the banana fell into his throat.  I laughed and began rubbing my head, sore from the fall.  My Mom tried to laugh but she coughed first and what came out of her was a combination of both.  My brother grabbed for our shoes.  


We are not interested in facts.  We find interest in facts viciously funny.  And it is probably most definitely out of ignorance, ignorance of really being alive and really living in a city that we are able to close our eyes at night and expect to ever wake up again.


We are all 40.  Even if we are not, we are. We are pissed that we are.  Imagine all the things we could have done before we were 40?  How many stories could we have told?  How many taken?  How many lost?  


We might never make it.  All of what we do might die with us.  Maybe people will remember.  Maybe some will remember only the bad.  Maybe some will remember the effort, the tiny moments in stories we told.  Maybe they will mix up a memory, something we told them, with something we said.  Maybe they will drink so much they get sick and remember that my brother had a banana in his mouth when he tried to laugh and tried to grab our shoes, when they vomit on a fire hydrant mostly covered with snow.


It doesn't matter.


We have always, since we were very very young and loved writing and telling stories, considered Walker Percy and the choices he made.  What if he had been in a shit mood?  What if Toole's Mom had written an assy letter or offered to suck his dick to read the book?  What if she had died before Walker Percy knew how tragic this all was, how great it would be for him, how great it would be for all of us?


The Confederacy of Dunces is a great book.


We know a lot of people think and say that but we applaud any mention of it, no matter what the reason, no matter how petty and strained.


Storytellers, we are often misunderstood.  While we want people to listen, we are defensive when they don't.  We blame the listener to a point, but we are forced to wonder if we would listen if we were listening.  Would we?  We often have to swallow deeply when we answer this question.  


We have a lot to swallow.  The hollow praise is the most filling and the most likely reason for the diarrhea and the piss-taste we have in our mouth when we wake up the next morning.  The people who don't say anything, nothing at all about what we read but ask about our lives, the things actually happening in our lives, they are the bag of chips (usually cheetoes) we forgot to finish before the reading and found again when we were either driving home or taking the bus/train or God forbid, a cab.     The chips (usually cheetoes) remind us that we are just one human being on this earth.  They taste wonderful and we close our eyes.  We pretend we forgot they were there, that we would ever eat such a thing.  Before we get home, we discard the package.  If we are driving, we litter and we never litter.  If we are in a cab, we stuff it under the passenger side seat while we cough.  If we are on the El or on a bus and people are around, we leave it next to a garbage stained Hoy! or Red Eye.  Sometimes when we are left alone, when nobody is watching us on the El or bus and there is not a chance that anybody cares, we place the bag of chips (usually cheetoes) in the little garbage can next to the side door.  We drop it right on top of a cola soaked Reader.  We consider everything.  We remember all of the times our names have been in there. Before we push the doors open and feel them give, we sigh.


We are home before we know it. The walk always feels longer than it is.  Halfway home, we pull out the key we need.  We hold it tight in our right hand.  If someone we know surprises us and tries to shake our hand, we will extend our hand but we will not let go of the key.  It will be awkward.


When we get to our front door, everything will rush to our heads.     We will hear cats meowing, our cats, or dogs barking or whimpering, our dogs, or we will hear water running, our water. We will hear something and we will rush inside and be home, surrounded by all the things we love, as storytellers.


When we check our email, and we as storytellers, must do that before we go to bed and we, as storytellers, must check to see if anyone has told a story about us.  Sometimes, most of the time, there is nothing and we go to bed empty but sure that someone will say something in the morning, good or bad.  Sometimes, before we go to bed, there is a glowing review from a friend who had earlier in the night, only casually asked about our lives.  We feel vindicated.  


Sometimes we come home from a really bad night of storytelling and can't make our way inside.  This often happens after a reading in which we left feeling used and ignored, a reading in which most of the people who we thought would be listening just stared at our mouths forming words with the same amount of attention they gave the line to the bathroom or the path of their next drink.  Storytellers, this is not always our fault.  Sometimes, we are terrible.  Sometimes, our stories suck.  And sometimes our stories are amazing but they are told right after a musical act.  We all love music and we all would rather hear a jew harp played by an exhausted otter then hear a good story from a lively human being. As much as we think to the contrary, we always want music, we always want songs.  We are always hesitant about poetry, the thought of it makes most of us sick, and a story, christ, we all, all of us, pray to god it will be good and when it isn't, it is unbearable. It doesn't matter how bad the music is, we can tolerate the worst, bathe in the worst but we can also dissolve into the mediocre, the innocuous,.  We can live in and around music, good or bad.  Only snobs leave parties where there is bad music.  It is OK to talk over music, around it.  Storytellers, we are not going to shout to be heard, we are not going to tell our stories if we are not going to be heard. If it is a party, we want to be part of it all, but if you want us to be a part of the party, you need to swallow what we have to say.  If you want us to read, you better shut the fuck up and listen.


Sometimes we have to break it down and say to all the haters out there, that this thing, storytelling, this thing that makes us fucking want to breathe, that this thing is never about the publishing world  or polished professional storytelling, that is  about a bunch of people, some students, some former students, some that have never been students at all, just people from the neighborhood, people who haven't made it yet, people that are just starting to understand how big this is, how integral it is to the world. 


We will not all make it. We all know what make it means and we will not all get there, to that artificial point of success but as creative human beings, we will of course make it, all of us, in a big way, as soon as we are able to distinguish our lives and our stories from everybody else's and say something that has never been said before. A lot of people have lived lives before ours and have seen things we never have and never will.  Most of their stories were without a doubt,  great tales of the human condition but also were, without a doubt,  told poorly, with stammering asides  and re-starts and lines like, "If you knew the (city, person, street, pet, bed, bathroom, pond, stretch of highway, fruit, engine, war, std, apple, bathtub, color) I was talking about, you would get what I was talking about."  We are storytellers and we make all of these mistakes.  We tell bad stories.  We hear bad stories and we do not get angry.  We are like poets not getting mad at teenagers scrawling giant bad rhymes into giant rocks and trees.  We are happy anything is being done at all. Some of us may have grown up in the country or in a suburb of a city.  Some of us grew up in the middle of a city.  Some of us grew up in the country surrounded with violence and despair.  Some of us grew up in the city being kissed by mayors and having our social security numbers stolen to start up gas service.  Some of us grew up in Suburbia feeling nothing could ever ever ever ever ever hurt us and some of us grew  up in Suburbia wondering if certain foods were fruits, vegetables or God forbid, legumes. Sometimes, some of us grew up in the wrong places.  Sometimes, some of us learned the wrong things. Some of us grew up doubting it was possible to choke on a banana.


Over the last few years in Chicago we have tried to tell good stories.  We have tried to make it possible to hear good stories. We have done an OK job but at the same time, we have failed.  We have made it somehow possible that there are more storytellers who care about telling stories then there are people who actually want to listen to stories being told.  




My brother did not die because he choked on a banana.  He died because the story surrounding his death fucking sucked.



Despite everything I said and despite Hollywood's inability to turn it into a movie, A Confederacy of Dunces is a really good book.