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‘Pieces of Your Heart You Can Look At’

April 11, 2010

Have been thinking since reading Ray’s post, and in fact since reading all the way back to Treme is Not Okay, which has been bouncing around in my head for ages as I tried to think of what to say about Treme. I’ve remained relatively unspoiled. I haven’t watched videos and I haven’t watched previews and I’ve only read the interviews posted here, because sometimes it’s best to go into these things cold. But this interests me:

I don’t want to be like that busker character in that one scene, hating on some innocent kids from Wisconsin just because they don’t know everything there is to know about Katrina.  On the other hand, the thought of lefty-blogger blowhards like Yglesias ‘n’em passing judgment and making pronouncements about a city that the lefty-sphere has gone out of their way to ignore all these years…it irks me a little.  I feel like we’re inviting the carpetbloggers in to come and appropriate whatever they want, for whatever purpose, and fuck the deeper truths lived by the actual people who are from here.

Who should tell your story? Who has the right to tell it? Who gets to see it, to come inside, to take what they want? To skim from the surface or drink deep? Can you even control that? Should you?

My answers to these questions are biased, because I tell others’ stories for a living, because in order to get out of bed and look in the mirror every day I have to convince myself this is a worthwhile endeavor, because I’m never able to separate how much of what I think is important about what I do is justification and how much is actually not total bullshit. And I fucking hate talking about process. I feel like talking about process is what writers do when they’re too lazy to write.

But, question’s been raised. Who has the right to tell your story and hear your story? Who has the right to be let in that deep? Telling a story is letting someone into your heart, into the things for you that are like the things of the church, the things you don’t talk about, that are knit into your muscle and bone. We were always trying to be conscious of that, at my last paper, that ain’t nobody obligated to give you shit about their lives and that if they do, you tread on that as if it’s sacred ground. We didn’t always get there but I’d never say we didn’t always try. Here’s the crazy thing, though: Show up on someone’s doorstep after their grandkid died in some horrific car accident or school shooting or something, call up somebody after 20 years who said he was molested by a priest, invite yourself to a funeral, join a Muslim family for dinner after their children have been spit at on the street, and more often than not people want you there. They invite you in. Feed you, even. They talk for hours.  They want their story told.

We all know as fucking human beings, somewhere deep down, that our own memories only live as long as we do and the way we teach each other how to live is to tell our stories. And if we can’t tell them ourselves, we tell them this way: Books. Newspapers. TV shows. Movies, even. Radio. We’ve expanded the campfire where we used to share tales of the hunt to the entire fucking world. This is how we do this now.

It it exploitative? It can be, if done badly. It can be terribly destructive, breaking something up into little pieces and putting it out there for the rest of the world to see. It can be scary. The week before my last book was published I was a horrible wreck, thinking that once it came out I’d basically be naked to the world. All the things that had made me up, made me who and what I was, all the deepest things I don’t talk about even after the bottle’s half-empty, would be there for anybody with $25 and a few hours of free time to pick over. I’d never tell anyone to do that kind of thing if they didn’t want to do it. I have zero quarrel with people who’d just as soon any storyteller at their door went the fuck away.

And audiences can be total assholes. The worst thing about being in any kind of communication medium is that you’re basically just throwing shit out there and you have zero control where it lands. Somebody might be inspired to go shoot up a freeway, and that isn’t in any way what you meant, but damned if they didn’t just hear what they wanted to hear. Somebody else, though, might get it. Somebody else might take it up. Somebody else might make their life’s work something glorious because of something that you said. And that’s always been a chance I’ve been willing to try to convince others to take. So who has the right to tell the story? Whoever wants it bad enough to get it. To show up on the doorstep, to do the work to get inside, to crawl around under the skin of something and get people to talk.

And once it’s out there, there will be lots of people who can see your heart. Who will know your secrets. And who will remember, long after you’re gone, who you were and what you did. And it’s not up to anybody but you to decide if that’s worth it. It’s not up to anybody but you to decide how much to care, how annoyed to get at stupid fanboys or clueless tourists, how much pride to take in knowing all this stuff first, way before the HBO crews came and made it cool.


  1. April 11, 2010 1:59 pm

    Woohoo! Athenae weighs in.

    The tales do have a way of getting a life of their own…which is the point at which one musters his/her best parenting skills and lets it go. It’s what we gotta do tonight, for certain.

  2. April 11, 2010 2:06 pm

    It all comes down to this: Simon, who began as a reporter but like the best set out to write books when the story grew too big or complicated to be measured in column inches, has proved through his books and films that he has the chops to do this right. If you know his work, you want to trust him even though its bits of our own hearts, not his own, that he’s chopping up for the storyboards. Whether he has the chops to carry that tune five miles on a hot April day and leave in his trail an ecstatically happy second line we will know in a few hours.

  3. April 11, 2010 2:14 pm

    *sigh*. hold me.

  4. April 11, 2010 2:21 pm

    The thing about storytelling is the listener/reader/watcher is an equal partner, has an active role, and is an inherently subjective recipient.

    One of the crazier Strangelovian pieces of US federal Export Control regulations (bear with me here, there is a point coming) is that if I, a US rocket scientists, talk to you, a North Korean scientist colleague/friend/grad student,tourist, whoever, about my ultra secret rocket plans, I have LITERALLY exported secret rocket plans to fucking North Korea, and what happens to them is out of my control, and it’s six degrees of separation between me and annihilation and come sink my battleship, Kim Jong Il. Crazy, huh? Yeah, but part of that has always secretly delighted me because it’s all about how powerful a tipping point storytelling is. It’s part of our lizard brains since we’ve been sitting around that fire in the cave, and fear and survival and glory are all mixed up together. I tell my story, and the woman across the fire will totally sleep with me now because of my prowess but the guy next to me may hunt my secret mammoth grounds empty but I need his help because mammoth hunting is a tricky enterprise and I’m gonna have kids to feed by next winter.

  5. April 11, 2010 2:33 pm

    of course we don’t know if ray is responding to athenae or David Simon or both of them.

  6. April 11, 2010 2:51 pm

    “I tell my story, and the woman across the fire will totally sleep with me now because of my prowess but the guy next to me may hunt my secret mammoth grounds empty but I need his help because mammoth hunting is a tricky enterprise and I’m gonna have kids to feed by next winter.”

    Ain’t that the truth. This flowchart goes through my head each time before I take a deep breath and tell my versions of Kuwait, post-9/11 America and New Orleans.

    People will do with your tale what they will, but be as patient as possible, because chaos theory states that dynamic systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions. We can argue about where “initial” begins, but what you say and how does matter along the way.

  7. April 11, 2010 7:29 pm

    “But I like it
    Because it is bitter,
    And because it is my heart.”


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