Finding a Good Story
Sometimes you just need a good story. Donald Miller, in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, defines a good story as “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it”. But the character has to be likeable or who wants to read about her? And the story has to be meaningful as well.
The other day one of our cats, Noel, got up on the roof and couldn’t get down, or at least she pretended she couldn’t and she’s so fat I believed her. I called out to Rose who was sitting on the couch playing a computer game, an activity she does all too often. She looked up from the screen, thought for just a moment, then came running out to where I was staring up at a round black ball of fur pathetically mewing. We tried all kinds of methods that involved step stools and tree branches and food and scratched arms and hands. “Wait until Wayne comes,” I finally told her. “He can bring his tall ladder and it will be easier.” Rose, at that time still up in a tree next to the house, looked at me with quiet determination and said, “No, this is my job.” Fortunately I had just finished Miller’s book and so didn’t argue. She needed a good story and she persisted until Noel was safely down.
I wrote a story for The Sun Magazine when I was 39 that they chose not to publish, much to my disappointment. It was for a column where readers write on a subject and some of the others that got published, well…..just my personal opinion, but…. The topic was “Doing Good” and I found it recently during one of my decluttering attempts. I think it has the elements of a good story and just hope that Donald Miller would agree:
It is late June and I sit on my shaded front porch for some relief from the afternoon heat. I glance through the local newspaper with little interest until I see a photo on the last page of section C. A large boar, on the way to a slaughterhouse in Chicago, has escaped and an animal control officer and a truck driver are trying to recapture him. One has him by the tail, the other by a rope around the neck. “Ham on the Lam” is the title under the photo, but I am much more haunted than amused. With his mouth open in an expression of rage and agony, and his front feet lifted off the ground, the boar seems to know where he is headed and is fighting desperately for this life. And it seems wrong that the scales are so weighted against him, with ropes and trucks and slaughterhouses.
It makes me remember my childhood game of making up new episodes of Bonanza, with me as “Annie” the little sister. I was a character so full of fun and spirit and mischief that folks would just shake their heads and say, “That Ben Cartwright has his hands full with that little lady.”
One of my favorite episodes was about a mean rancher who captured a herd of wild horses and made them stay in a crowded corral, unable to run and play. After careful planning, I snuck out one night, past Hoss’s snoring, past Pa’s bedroom, down the huge wooden stairway and out to the barn. There I saddled my trusty little pinto pony and away we rode. With the fringe on my buckskin jacket mimicking my pony’s mane and tail, it seemed that we were almost flying over the sagebrush as we headed for the evil corral and trouble. After petting and calming each wild horse, I unlatched the gate, then watched as they galloped off over the hills in the moonlight.
Of course I was later discovered and given lots of threats of punishment from all sides. But in the end, in the final scene of the story, Pa is telling Adam and Hoss and Little Joe that “it sure is something that it took a little girl to do good and I wish I’d had the courage to do the same.”
Everything seemed so clear in those stories I made up. The ponies were my friends, the mean rancher my enemy, and in the end, courage and kindness and doing the right thing were always rewarded. I can still find comfort in the simple values of my Annie Cartwright episodes, for at 39, the black and white edges of doing good and bad fade and weave together like the different vines on my back fence.
This summer, as the homegrown tomatoes ripen, I will buy my bacon for BLT’s, ham for cold macaroni salad. Along with the animal control officer and the truck driver, I will be the pig’s enemy. But how I wish the caption on this photo were different. How I wish instead of “It took hours to recapture the massive pig,” it read “A young girl on a fast pinto pony rode up out of nowhere and cut the rope, then watched as the boar ran off, to escape through the city and off over the hills.”
At 61, I still want to be that cowgirl, courageous and strong, riding her pinto pony across the prairie. I do have a brown felt hat and red boots and I’ve written a children’s book about that little girl that I plan to publish one day (let’s hope for better luck this time). Maybe it will encourage other little girls to act on what they believe. And I’m not so sure anymore that those edges of doing good and bad are that unclear—I have begun again to see them in more distinct patterns of black and white.
To my surprise, Rose never told her story about rescuing Noel. I know what Donald Miller would say. He’d say she didn’t really need to tell the story because she lived the story. And he’d say (well, he did say it and you should read his book) that a good life is like a good story. It starts with a character who wants something and has to overcome conflict to get it. It’s a life that’s not that comfortable or easy. It takes getting off the couch and moving with a purpose. And the purpose needs to be meaningful. Something like letting wild horse run free. Something like getting a cat off the roof. Something you believe to be the right thing to do.