Today was day one of my narrative theory and inquiry class, and it looks like it’s going to be a winning semester. One of the in-class activities had us writing a brief narrative about a stranger we’d encountered. Recent encounters were preferable, and after an abbreviated memory search I wrote the following:
Traveling to Chicago last weekend, I found myself stopping at an ATM in Merrillville, Indiana, which abuts Interstate 65 in the Northwest corner of the state. The clouds from an impending thunderstorm were hanging low in the sky and just as I pulled away from the ATM I caught a figure out of the corner of my eye. It wore a loose grey sweatshirt, which surprised me given the hot weather. One weathered hand gripped a length of wood atop which sat a sign “Puppy sale. The Pet Store.” The Pet Store is exactly what its name implies, and it’s located in the strip mall adjacent to the bank. His other free hand sort of hung frozen in the air. But as the car rolled by I noticed there was the slightest movement to it. He was waving. Waving to who? Pondering the question gave me time to take in the rest of the costume. Worn jeans with a few tears in the front. Frayed near the bottom. And a red baseball cap relaxing on his head—not really doing the work a baseball cap should. Pulling out into the street, I could see his wrinkled brow, furrowed by the sun. Perpetually furrowed by many suns, perhaps. I wondered how many times he has stood by the road holding signs and waving. How many times holding signs but not waving? What does he think about standing by the road? And who does he stand there for? Is he standing there for himself? For a family? Driving past on our way to the highway, having just put a few crisp bills in my wallet, I tried to see his eyes. I’m not sure why. I couldn’t see them, though, because he wasn’t looking up.
After the exercise, we were prompted to read the narrative to a neighbor and dig a little deeper and consider what the narrative reveals about the author. We had to introduce ourselves as these strangers. These stranger doppelgängers. So, for the above story, I had to think about what it reveals about me. Why did I choose to write about this man? I’ve encountered many strangers during the last few days. Why did I remember (and include) the details that I did? Why did I omit others? What of myself did I see in him? What of not-myself did I see? How did I relate to him? How did I distance myself? These are some really fun, provocative questions to think about, especially considering I thought the exercise was going to culminate in a class-wide sharing of stories to open a discussion about the variety of perspectives and approaches we all adopt and take when telling stories. Moreover, what a great way to illustrate natural proclivities for storytelling. Even without having shared with everyone in the room, I know we all wrote something down. And I know everything everyone wrote down would have been recognizable as a story. Cool stuff.