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We DON’T All Have Stories [On the Contrary]

There are many people out there who hate mornings. I am not one of them, but I hate waking up, whether it is from a night of full sleep or an afternoon nap. It might just be psychological, it is a physical struggle to make my arms and legs move, not to mention to remember everything I need to pack up, brush up, throw away, or turn off before I leave my apartment. For any hope of mental awareness, I need to shower, hydrate, and then spend at least fifteen minutes reading a paper or spacing out before I am even marginally fit to face the world. One of the godsends for my morning struggle is the calm, sane voice that emanates from my boom box in the form of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. They give me the news quickly and efficiently, as well as provide human interest stories that may or may not be interesting, but are always comfortingly unobtrusive.

If some of these stories appeared later in the day, of course, I might not feel the same way. Case in point is StoryCorps.

This is an initiative—backed by and aired on NPR—that follows in the tradition of Studs Terkell and Charles Kuralt in collecting the stories of so-called “Ordinary Americans.” The stories—which usually seem to be some thirty-something reporter interviewing her octogenarian grandfather about what life was like growing up—are aired on national radio and then (we are told) catalogued in the Library of Congress. Even in the morning, the best thing that can be said for many of these “stories” is that they make a nice white noise that can easily be ignored. I certainly hope the Library of Congress has a lot of space, because saving every one of these (only a handful of which are broadcast compared to the amount recorded) is about as useful as saving every bag you bring home from the supermarket, thinking they could be of use until one day discovering you no longer have room for food in your cabinets.

I actually do believe that every human being has something in his or her experience that can be shared with the world. We do all have stories, but that doesn’t mean we have stories that are ready to share. People should be encouraged to gather stories from their grandparents, their parents, their friends, their children—everyone really—and share stories in return. This is communicating. But when something is presented to the public, could we please cut it down, punch it up, or at least try to make it compelling for an audience that has no personal connection to these people?

It seems to be an increasing problem that people do not give enough consideration and development to what they want to share. We see it in bathroom updates on Twitter, status reports of pets on Facebook, and in racist outcries from future Hooters girls at UCLA. New media is actually conducive to this kind of raw, stream-of-consciousness style of content. People throw it out there without much (or any cost) and then an audience either discovers it or it doesn’t. For every entertaining viral video or witty blog post, there are hundreds (or thousands) of clips as dull as an MLS soccer game and that garner a similarly small audience. This is fine because there is not much at stake on either end, either for creator or audience.

The problem is that the notion of throwing underdeveloped ideas around is bleeding into other forms of storytelling. StoryCorps gives us uncut interviews with Grandma. Movie studios cut back on development, shooting franchise tent poles with scripts that seem to have been written over a weekend (see the sequels to IRON MAN and TRANSFORMERS for examples). Unlike most Internet content, people pay to consume this material, whether it is through sponsorship, tickets, or donations. An audience should then reasonably be able to expect that some thought was given to creating the best project possible—thinking of a story that would appeal or enrich them, and telling it with a care to keep them in mind. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always seem to be the case.

I work part time as a screenplay analyst. Basically I read scripts and provide feedback/guidance on the material. Supposedly, when I get a script it is at or nearly at the point of being completely polished and ready for shooting. I am astounded, then, by how little thought has gone into some of these things. Not only are people not taking the care to clearly tell a well-developed story, many times they are not even considering whether a story is worth telling. I do believe that anything can be made interesting, but it takes some major talent and creativity to tell a compelling story about a grandfather who has a collection of RC Cola cans. Some things are maybe best left to dinner conversation or family reunions, rather than trying to package them into mass entertainment.

We hear about how this generation has been raised with the notion that we are each of us special, and this has in turn made us a bunch of entitled, self-centered egotists who think every thought we have is gold and needs to be shared with the world. I know as a “blogumnist” I am very much a part of this. But maybe we should be a little harder on ourselves about what we choose to present to the public. If you’re going to run a marathon, you make sure to spend the time preparing so that you can be in the best shape possible when facing unforgiving road for 26 miles. It seems odd that we don’t take the same care with polishing and developing our ideas before throwing them out for global consumption. Maybe we need to be a little harder on ourselves, and get back to asking whether a story is really worth telling before we make someone read/listen/watch it. Then maybe I wouldn’t be up all night giving more thought to scripts than their authors did, and could have a sunnier morning disposition.

Note: This column will NOT be archived in the Library of Congress.

Co-Editor’s Note: Mr. Rusin can’t possibly know that. Wait for it…