On Hard-Won Lessons in Your Single, Solitary Years

Happy New Year!

I’ve cast this blog aside for the first few days of the year, spending some vacation time in Florida and working on building new relationship(s). To that end, a lot of what I have been reading online almost seems to come my way as something that I was meant to read, confirming my beliefs/values. Perhaps the best example is this Modern Love story in The New York Times, on what being single for many years teaches you:

Being a single person searching for love teaches you that not everything is under your control. You can’t control whether the person you’ve fallen for will call. You can’t force yourself to have feelings for the nice guy your best friend fixed you up with. You have no way to know whether attending this or that event — a co-worker’s art opening, a neighbor’s housewarming — will lead to the chance encounter that will forever alter your life. You simply learn to do your best, and leave it at that.

Ringing endorsement here:

Relationships are work, but so is being single, and I became pretty good at it.

The perspective in the story comes from someone older than me, but I sympathize with this:

Most important, I’ve realized I never needed a long boyfriend résumé for the experience. In the 20 years before I met Mark, I learned a lot of hard lessons: how to be a self-respecting adult in a world that often treats single people like feckless teenagers; how to stand at cocktail parties while my friends’ in-laws asked me if I had a boyfriend; how to have warm, friendly dinners with strangers I had met online as we delicately tried to determine whether we could possibly share our lives together; and how to come home to an empty apartment after a rotten day at work.

A wonderful way to start 2014.


(hat tip: @jennydeluxe)

“Endings that Hover”: On Stories and Resolutions

I really, really enjoyed reading Nelly Reifler’s essay “Endings That Hover.” It’s about our (human) need to tell stories, create narratives, and come to terms with endings in short stories/books/movies.

The need to tell stories, to create narratives, grows from the weird essence of the human condition: we are conscious, and inextricable from consciousness is the awareness that we are going to die. This knowledge makes simply living kind of a crazy act. Plus, life is chaotic, and most of what happens during our short time alive just happens to us. Most of what happens occurs by chance or through the will of some outside entity; occasionally we are able to exert power, but usually with compromise and adjustment. So we narrate our lives as we live them, making sense of the chaos by organizing our experiences. Forming our lives into plot, we can pick out certain patterns and see some cause and effect. We learn to navigate the chaos, sometimes, little by little. We believe we are moving forward.

On our need for resolutions:

Within every story with a moral was a story with resolution. The role of literature has changed over the centuries, and it no longer carries the burden of reinforcing our social structure and codes of behavior. But even now — after modernism, after postmodernism — we’re still looking to narratives to provide us with a sense of resolution.

Like the author, I appreciate stories with ambiguous endings, where we’re forced to rattle our brain to come up with interpretations:

I’ve noticed that stories that appear to have resolutions don’t give me the satisfaction I want them to, and I imagine that’s true for some of you as well. Even if we crave resolution, it only satisfies us briefly. I’d say that the popularity of sequels and serials speaks to the fact that as humans we know that nothing resolves.

We writers have the urge to wrap up our stories, to provide our characters, ourselves and our readers with a sense of completion. For a while I had trouble ending my stories because I thought that I needed to somehow contain or recap everything that had unfolded in the preceding pages; I thought an ending had to be the end. It was befuddling for me. I hoped that in my fiction I was talking about the awkward, ineffable, eerie, and unresolvable aspects of life, and coming to a conclusion felt contradictory to what I understood as fiction’s purpose. It felt like lying.

This is wonderful:

To my mind, a story’s ending ought to acknowledge the ever-moving quality of life; that is, I want it to engage change rather than finality. Your final word and the void following it on the page are as close as you’ll get to conclusion. The best endings to stories have a sense of hovering in space and time; even a dark ending can be uplifting, exhilarating, as long as it seems to hover in space and time — because then it reflects life to us as it is: unresolved, eternally unresolvable.

Worth reading in entirety. I also endorse Nelly Reifler’s claim that Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Dog” will take your breath away. It’s one of my all-time favourite short stories.


(Thanks to Jodi Ettenberg for the recommendation)


On Selling and Storytelling

What is the one of the most important elements in selling a particular commodity? Sure, usefulness/practicality matters. But what’s even more important is the story behind the product. The emotional connection that people make to stories cannot be discounted. Ty Montague reminds us of this narrative in The Harvard Business Review:

Back in the summer of 2006, New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker was mulling the question of what makes one object more valuable than another. What makes one pair of shoes more valuable than another pair if they both deliver on the functional basics of comfort, durability, and protection? Why does one piece of art cost $8,000,000 and another, $100? What makes one toasterworth $20 and another worth nearly $400 if they both make toast? As Walker turned these questions over in his mind he concluded that it is not the objects themselves, but the context, the provenance of the objects, that generates value. In other words, the value isn’t contained in the objects themselves, but in the story or the meaning that the objects represent to the owner.

Walker decided to test this conclusion in a simple and direct way. With the help of a friend, he began buying random, worthless, or low-value objects at tag sales and thrift shops. The cost of the objects ranged from one to four dollars. An old wooden mallet. A lost hotel room key. A plastic banana. These were true castoffs with little or no intrinsic worth.

Next, Walker asked some unknown writers to each write a short story that contained one of the objects. The stories weren’t about the objects, per se; but they helped to place them in a human context, to give them new meaning.

When Walker put the objects, along with their accompanying stories, up for sale on eBay, the results were astonishing. On average, the value of the objects rose 2,700%. That’s not a typo: 2,700%. A miniature jar of mayonnaise he had purchased for less than a dollar sold for $51.00. A cracked ceramic horse head purchased for $1.29 sold for $46.00. The value of these formerly abandoned or forsaken objects suddenly and mysteriously skyrocketed when they were accompanied by a story.

You can see the results of that fascinating project here. It is time that we all learn to tell better stories.