It’s dark out this morning when I wake up, as it has been every morning since October. There’s something pleasantly surreal about being up before the sun. Maybe it fulfills some romantic desire to work on a farm like my parents. Or maybe it’s just my version of solitude. With a single lamp and the shades drawn, I begin my day hours before I need to shower, pack my lunch, and head to the Blue Line.
Work begins at 9:30. The train ride is twenty minutes, bookended by a five-minute bike ride and a ten-minute walk. If I wanted to, on any given morning I could watch an entire feature-length film and still make it to work on time. But I wake up wanting to move, think, plan, organize, and (when I have something good on the boards) write. This morning is no different, and if I was in the habit of keeping an activity log, today’s would read:
- made coffee (too weak)
- emptied dishwasher
- mapped route from Chicago to the Carolinas (by way of Louisville, Kentucky)
- read ten pages in The New Jim Crow
- prepped vegetarian chili in slow cooker (sweet potato, bell pepper, fire-roasted tomatoes, two kinds of beans, and lots of cumin)
- read Vanity Fair article about the influence of 1982′s Diner
- made lunch (roast beef sandwich, cherry tomatoes, orange)
No matter what I’m doing, one part of my brain keeps trying to figure out what to say about Galactic’s new album, Carnivale Electricos. My review is due sometime today, but until I make it to the train and find that Presidents’ Day has emptied the Blue Line of its normal cast of commuters, I don’t have anything good to say about it. But never underestimate what getting a seat on a train will do for the imagination, for de-cluttering a head. I’ve noticed that I really can’t think straight until I’m in a situation where I’m a captive audience to myself.
I put on the album, starting with “Magalenha,” a remake of a song made famous by Brazilian composer Sergio Mendes. From there, I skip around, noting rhythms (rumba clave), instruments (saxophone), and references (Black Eyed Peas). I agree with Scott, my editor, that the best tracks are the ones without the guest artists, except for “Karate,” which features the KIPP Renaissance High School Marching Band and brings it about has hard as Mucca Pazza, Chicago’s salvaged marching-band outfit. By the time the Clark/Lake station blurs into view, I’ve got a good start. Two-hundred words isn’t a lot anyway.
I’m at work early enough to devote some time to my Google Reader. Today, I’m surprised to see activity on the blog of a good friend. There are more than a few of us waiting for Derek Hamm to break his radio silence (at least consistently), so I hit that link first. It’s a quote from Malcolm Gladwell, not from Blink or The Tipping Point or any of his other sociological studies, but from a conversation he had with behavioral economist Dan Ariely:
“I’ve learned that if you tell your story properly, people are very, very open-minded—far more open-minded than I would’ve thought. Or to put it in a more sophisticated way: People are information-rich and theory-poor. If you can give them a way of organizing their experience, then their minds are wide open. Which I would not have not have necessarily thought. And if you can frame questions appropriately you can overcome all kinds of ideological—what you would have thought of—as ideological constraints. So I’ve been continuously surprised. I always thought my book, because I am a political liberal, that my books would have heavily liberal audiences. But in fact they don’t….”
He could’ve stopped at the first line. “…If you tell your story properly, people are very, very open-minded….” That’s a powerful truth we keep forgetting. It also hints at our big failure: our relegation of the story to a world of impractical art-making.
Our storytellers are not people of power. Yes, we’ve got folks like Graydon Carter or, well, Malcolm Gladwell, who wield the same kind of influence that politicians do. But others work their miracles from the periphery. Most accept it, maybe prefer it. But we’ve let things like voting records and rhetoric usurp story’s place in the way we learn about others and the type of people they are. Stories can be corrupted, obviously, but it’s a fairly straightforward medium. No one expects a story to say everything. Fortunately, it seems like there has been a resurgence of the idea that the stories we tell—both true and false—are not just important but completely inimitable. That nothing communicates the same way a story does.
A few minutes after the first quote, I’m reading Gladwell again. Liz Danzico apparently read the same conversation as Derek. She pulled out a different bit:
“To be a writer I think you’re kind of constitutionally disposed toward optimism.”
I haven’t read the whole interview, so I can’t say whether I agree or disagree, but my instinct is to lean toward the latter. I’m aware of the irony of it: An optimistic person would readily agree. But that wouldn’t necessarily prove Gladwell right, just that he and this hypothetical reader are both optimists. My skepticism about this exact statement notwithstanding, I am a fairly optimistic person, to the point of naivete at times. So I’m hoping that not only is Gladwell right, but that it’s reversible, that simple optimism begets a disposition toward writing good stories.
Now, the question remains: how to tell the story of Carnivale Electricos “properly?” And how to do it in 200 words?