In my last post, I said that the tag line for Tim Allen Stories is “Science-fiction, fantasy, and other stories,” and that this current post might feature an “other” story. Okay, that’s fine. But what, you might reasonably ask, is an other story?
There are many types of stories besides science-fiction and fantasy, including memoirs, essays, fables, vignettes, story fragments, reportage, and so on. “Other stories” can be any of those types and more.
In a previous incarnation, I did a little reporting for The Chicago Defender, a mainstream daily newspaper in the Windy City; and many years later I did much more reporting for the Review, a quarterly community newspaper published in Seattle by the Phinney Neighborhood Center. The Phinney Center hosts a dizzying array of activities, including community services, social and cultural events, farmers markets, amateur theatrical productions, fairs, seasonal get-togethers, annual house and garden tours, and a full roster of arts and crafts classes taught by knowledgeable volunteers.
For the Defender, I wrote a youth-oriented column about whatever interested me as a teenager. Most notably, I interviewed the stars of the latest rhythm-and-blues tour that was playing at the Regal Theater, one of the last movie palaces on the South Side of Chicago. The Regal usually showed movies, but it rolled up its silver screen so acts such as Motown’s touring R&B artists could put on a concert; that is, a stage show. The stage shows at the Regal featured acts like Ray Charles, Martha and the Vandellas, and “Little” Stevie Wonder (before he grew up and changed his billing to simply, Stevie Wonder).
For the Phinney Review, I wrote human interest stories promoting small businesses in the neighborhood. And at the Phinney Center itself, I profiled some of the interesting and accomplished volunteers teaching the various classes. I knew this small, neighborhood, quarterly didn’t do hard-hitting investigative journalism, but after a while I began to bemoan my stories as trivial puff pieces for struggling enterprises, some of whom might easily go out of business before their story was ever published.
Even though a few of my neighbors mentioned they had read and enjoyed my stories, I began to feel my hard work was unseen and unappreciated. And make no mistake, reporting for even a small neighborhood newspaper is still hard work: People have to be interviewed, even if they’re reluctant or not forthcoming; their enterprise needs to be researched and their statements verified to the best of my ability; and then I have to interpret what they’ve said, and from that write a good story.
I volunteered to report for the Review because they needed help, they deserved support, and I had the skills to do so. But more personally, and frankly selfishly, I volunteered because I needed a change of pace from my frequently dispiriting nine-to-five job. However, that positive change of pace was itself beginning to turn negative. It’s then that I realized I’d have to make my own salvation.
The answer was simple: If I wanted to make each human interest assignment more engaging for both my readers and myself, then I needed to doggedly try to learn something new, unexpected, or interesting from each interview. What I learned would become the focus of my story.
At a jewelry store that had been located on Greenwood Avenue for decades, I learned that jewelers grade diamonds, such as the ones used for engagement and wedding rings, by the four C’s: cut, color, clarity, and carat weight. Ostentatious men like gamblers and wannabe rock stars might flaunt their wealth on their fingers and sometimes their smiles; while romantic young women who have long dreamed of being proposed to, might proudly wear a wedding ring. But even if a marriage should sadly fail, the jewelers could melt down the old ring, recut the diamond, and transform the old wedding ring into a new “divorce ring” that celebrates a new start on life.
At the Taproot Theater, a small legitimate theater converted from an old movie house, I found common ground with a reluctant artistic director by sharing my own minor experiences in theater. In return, he opened up and generously shared the inner workings of his theater, its history and lore, its backstage set production, and the underlying philosophy that sustained him and his fellow players in such a notoriously uncertain art.
At a class in the Phinney Neighborhood Center where an orchestra was rehearsing for an upcoming concert, I quietly sat in the back row behind a cellist. I had seen many concerts on radio and television, and attended a few symphonies from far away in the bargain seats I could afford as a student. But I had never sat so close to the musicians.
As the conductor raised her baton, and the cellist hunched over his instrument, I discovered what the cellist surely knew, but seldom had an occasion to tell others: The rich, deep notes of the cello slipped in between my ribs and resonated inside my ribcage like the sounding board of the cello itself. Suddenly I understood the intimate, visceral, almost living quality of the music that usually only musicians are privileged to experience.
In my interview with Charles R. Johnson, award-winning novelist for Middle Passage, and University of Washington English professor emeritus, I discovered his love of martial arts, literature, history, cartooning, screenwriting, and the same comic books I loved. I also learned of his association with the late martial artist, Bruce Lee; the very much alive film director, Spike Lee; and the conscience of America, the late Dr. Martin Luther King.
When I was assigned to interview the leaders of a Balkan folk group composed of their teenaged children, I discovered that some stories can’t be written. The folk troupe had been created by their Croatian and Bosnian–Herzegovinian parents to teach their teenaged children about their two cultures’ similar but ethnically diverse music, folk costumes, musical instruments, and dances. More importantly, the group was meant to encourage its teenaged participants to be friends in America, in a way that might not have happened back in Croatia and Bosnia–Herzegovina.
Miraculously, the parents’ plan worked. While their children practiced their music and dance, they inevitably became friends. That is, the plan worked until the Bosnian War broke out in 1992. Suddenly, the parents began to agonize about the fates of friends and family back in Bosnia until the pent up animosities they had suppressed for their children’s sake, began to boil over. In short order, teenagers who had been laughing and singing and dancing together a few weeks before, were now being told how untrustworthy were their friends and their families, and to not meet or associate with them in any way.
By the time my interview with the adults was scheduled, the group’s meetings and rehearsals had been cancelled. When I spoke to one contingent of parents, all they wanted to do was inundate me with piles of newspaper clippings and documentation about Bosnia to prove that their side in the ongoing war was “right.” And when I tried to talk to the opposite contingent, who had decided their side was “right,” I discovered they had decided the best way to handle the press like me, perhaps the way they had done in their homeland, was to close ranks and say nothing at all.
Without subjects to interview; and me feeling it was not my place be a conduit for propaganda, no matter how heartfelt; my editor and I concluded there was no story for me to write. Perhaps you’re thinking I could have written about the tragedy of friends and families being torn apart by a war happening 5,664 miles away from these hapless teenaged musicians and dancers. But a tragic story probably wasn’t appropriate for the Review.
Or perhaps you’re thinking that the contingent that chose to remain silent had succeeded by quashing the story. Maybe so. But remember that the Review is a just a small, quarterly, neighborhood newspaper devoted mostly to announcing upcoming social events and arts and crafts classes. Nothing printed there would have affected the war. So, was it better for that second contingent to have said nothing? Or would it have been better for them to seek the support of the community they chose to live in by sharing their fears and points of view?
What I learned by writing all these articles is that everyone has a story. And that if you listen, you’re likely to discover something new, unexpected, and interesting.
Technically, I think my “other” story, Glass Houses, isn’t exactly a news story. It started out as a memoir, then evolved into journalism, and then finally settled down and became a travel story. Glass Houses was something of an experiment for me. See the story’s Foreword and Afterword to discover the experiment’s lab conditions and results.