#408: The Stories I Cannot Tell

December 5th, 2014

By the beat-down storefront of an Avondale dive, under the glowing, dancing figures of a light-up Żywiec beer sign, I held an elderly woman in my arms as she wept.

And I can’t tell you why.

I could, of course, tell you the details. I could tell you how I ended up at that Polish bar, who I came with, why we were outside and the 50-year-old secret the drunken woman blurted before bursting into tears.

But I won’t.

I have no qualms about sharing a stranger’s secrets with the world. I’m a journalist; we’re exhibitionists with others’ bodies.

And I haven’t forgotten the details. I still can feel putting my arms gently around her, not quite pressing down, like one would hold a sick bird for fear of breaking hollow bones. I still can see her little Zorba sailors cap pressing into my chest as the glistening around her eyes spread. She sniffled on my coat. She sobbed so lightly it was more tremble than shake.

“They’re having a moment,” my friend Bret said as a barfly walked onto our scene.

I can share that moment, but that’s it. The rest is a story I cannot tell.

I’m talking to a group of students at a local school today. A class of seniors is doing a section on Ben Hecht’s “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” and they’re studying my modern version too. I’ll be giving them some advice on writing their own Hecht-inspired sketches of the world around.

It’s a great honor. And here’s my first tip: If a story is too special, too personal or too heartbreaking and wonderful, don’t tell it.

I once saw an interview where Douglas Adams was asked how he came up with “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” After he told the story of the moment the idea came to him, he said he didn’t remember the moment anymore. After so many hundreds of interviews and decades of cocktail party chitchat, all he remembered was the words to the story.

You’re allowed to have memories, young writers. You’re allowed to have stories you just keep for you, rather than let clever turns of phrase leach into your memories, petrifying a real, human, personal moment into an anecdote, fossilizing it like a dinosaur’s thighbone.

I can’t share why the old woman cried any more than I can share what a cabbie once lectured me about, the homeless man’s song, the Unkolpol letters, where the girl with the red hair said her home was or the actual dinosaur’s thighbone. Those are mine.

Every moment could be literature. That was Hecht’s insight and, although I’ll have to tell the students how many of his stories he just plain made up, it was also his genius.

But not every moment has to be literature. Don’t write about the moment you realized you were in love or the look in the eyes of a dying relative. Don’t write about the most powerful moments of your life unless you’re willing to let them become old chestnuts you roll out at parties.

You’ll get more than 1,001 stories in your life. Keep a few for yourself.

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