Storytelling

2632 Words

2632 words. That’s how long the short story I’ve been writing is, as of the current draft. A couple years ago, I was sick of having a billion ideas, mostly stories, and no way to use them. I was highly versed in filmmaking and screenwriting, but the limitations with those mediums meant my ideas would never face the scrutiny of the world-at-large. Sure I could pass around a screenplay, but how many of you read scripts–more importantly, how many know how to read the script structure?

To get a feel for my handicap, I’ll admit that the simple act of writing an email at work would cause me to tense up with fear. Fear that my crappy grammar and inability to notice the most basic spelling errors would forever paint me as a fraud. Like most challenges I’ve faced in my life, I took it head on.

Books on grammar, writing and craft filled my Kindle. Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, Eats Shoots and Leaves, countless Grammar Girl books. The list goes on. The biggest thing I needed to learn was that writing wasn’t the magical spell of inspiration non-writers assume but, like all the other types of art I’ve dabbled with, the key was in refining. Or in this case, editing.

I started by trying to find a voice. I posted on my blog analyzing various subjects I was interested in, but I quickly learned that interest in a subject didn’t exactly equate to expertise in a subject. I found myself going months without posting because the time needed to research the things I wanted to write about was hard to come by. Hence those “Where has Ronnie been?” updates. Still, I was receiving a great response from the few people who were reading my articles and my confidence was growing. I’d eventually be invited to write on Medium when it was still in beta.

I was excited to say the least. The buzz surrounding the new platform meant my stuff would be read by complete strangers. Folks who wouldn’t shy away from telling me to not quit my day job. Luckily I was never told that and last year my day job revolved around writing. And thanks to Medium’s stats, I was gaining confidence by knowing how engaging my writing was to others. My read ratio, the amount of people who read and finish my stories, was over 90%.

I started writing my yet-to-be named short story a few weeks ago after reading a writing prompt on Reddit. It was finished in a day, but because I had written it out by hand releasing it into the wild was impossible. Over the next few weeks the handwritten manuscript was transcribed. But in before I finished, inspiration struck and I wrote the story recalling the last day I spent with my little brother before he passed. After I wrote it, I spent around ten minutes editing it before I published it on Medium.

Since it was published, its read ratio hasn’t budged 40%. I can tell you why and you probably already know. It’s the same reason you won’t see my 2632 word short story yet. Because I want to refine it. Because I have to refine it or risk no one reading it through. That’s a hard thing to do.

With that said, I’m going to go refine it.

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Storytelling

A Stranger Comes to Town

At the end of the year, I decided to use a portion of my company’s education reimbursement benefit on some Skillshare courses. The following story is the first project I submitted for my Flash Fiction class. If you’re unfamiliar with flash fiction, it’s essentially a story in 1000 words or less. Mine is 600. I hope you’ll enjoy.

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The doorbell had been singing all morning. Each ring announced the arrival of gift bearers who had travelled far and wide. Once the gifts were placed in the corner of the living room, the visitors filled the halls with belts of laughter and chatter. Various things to eat were receiving their finishing touches, except for the cake awaiting to be slathered with icing in the oven.

Streamers had been taped to the ceiling and balloons were restrained from floating away on the back of chairs. Tying it all together was the giant banner hanging behind the sofa welcoming one “Jonathan Starks”. As I shook my head in disgust, a strange man approached me.

“Don’t you look pretty!”

“Thanks.” I said, smiling to hide it was a lie.

“Today’s the big day. Aren’t you excited?”

My inside voice shouted, “No siree! No way, Jose,” but my outside voice said played along.

The whole world seemed excited to celebrate this stranger’s arrival but I couldn’t care less. Miss Amber Rose Albert would not be hopping on that bandwagon. I agreed to wear a dress and that was enough. A scream begged for freedom inside of me, just to release some pressure. This was all new to me. I couldn’t explain myself, so I decided it was best to stay quiet. Besides, I would not want to be the one remembered for spoiling this ceremonial entrance. I had a reputation to uphold—an angelic one, if you will.

I mean, who did the little twerp think he was anyway? For six years this was my kingdom—in fact, he’d only be fooled by this gleeful welcoming party. Fooled to think he was the king when he was not. They loved me. Me. They all did and I had years of experience to learn what is near and dear to their hearts. I could play to their every worry and make them my puppet. I could even turn them against you. You betcha.

Sigh.

I began to realize that being so angry at someone I hadn’t met yet was wearing me out. I needed to sit down. As I sat on the sofa and straightened my dress, my eyes began to itch. Rubbing them only made them worse and the only solution was to shut them for a moment.

Ding dong!

The sound forced my eyes to fly open, but something stronger was influencing them to close again. Soon after, I was even losing my ability to keep my head on top of my neck. I just wanted today to be over. The pile of coats on the arm of the sofa were calling to me with a promise.

“Lay down your weary head and when you wake, it will have all been a dream,” they seemed to say. Just as I began to surrender, my Aunt Jayne made her way over to harass me.

“Now don’t fall asleep, darlin’.”

“I’m not.”

“Well, you need to be awake to welcome little Jonathan! Aren’t you excited?!”

“No.”

“Aw, why not? You’re going to be a BIG SISTER! Isn’t that exciting?”

Unable to think of a reply, I folded my arms across my chest and began to sulk. She was right. I was going to be a big sister but I didn’t care if Jonathan Starks Albert and I were going to share a last name. What bothered me the most was that we’d be sharing the same roof for the unforseeable future.

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Storytelling

Struggling with the Need to Belong after Hurricane Katrina

This was originally posted on Medium.

 

What is a refugee?

Had you asked prior to August 29th, 2005, I would have painted a picture with broad, distant strokes portraying, only through imagination, a group of Cubans in a converted nautical 1951 Chevy pickup traveling at a painfully slow seven knots toward what they hoped was Florida. After Hurricane Katrina devastated and disrupted the lives of my family, friends, and community, that all began to change. Eight years later, I struggle with my need to belong and the definition of home.

The need to belong ranks third on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Right after the need to eat, breathe, sleep, be healthy, and mortality. The concept of home is essential to our need for belonging. Unless you were a military brat, we all grew up somewhere. There is a fixed point on the map that we call home. For me, that place was St. Bernard Parish. I was born in the next-door-parish of Orleans, but St. Bernard was where I learned to ride a bike, go to school, have my first kiss, and play in a garage band. I always knew that I’d leave, though — explore new places and cultures — but I never once imagined there would be no home to go back to.

I certainly never thought I’d be a refugee. That distantly vague mental picture symbolized by Cuban tragedy suddenly became personal.

Before I continue, though, I’d like to acknowledge some of the most horrific losses during Hurricane Katrina that affected tens of thousands of people, if not more. They were the neighbors and friends. The loved ones. The brothers and sisters. Cousins, aunts, and uncles. Sons and daughters. Husbands and wives. Moms and dads. Their lives will never be forgotten — I will never forget that. Neither should anyone else. Natural disasters can destroy communities, relationships, and entire cities, and many of us will have to endure that pain at some point in our lifetimes.

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I was one of the fortunate. I didn’t lose anyone—just my home and my possessions. The nostalgic videos of Christmas mornings, photos of generations gone by, and personal, one-of-a-kind items were the hardest to swallow. I was able to put things in perspective because there were others who were much worse off than me—those stranded at the Superdome—those trapped in the Morial Convention Center—those trapped on their roofs waiting for help. I’ve always had a knack for internalizing the positive even in the most dire of circumstances. Although many died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many were saved, and although the response to that disaster has been the subject of debate and criticism, the crystallized view of humanity that emerged from the stories of survivors and impacted communities was bittersweet in hope and despair in the months and years following Hurricane Katrina.

Some might say I was lucky. I moved to San Francisco, met a beautiful girl, moved to New York City to work in film, and moved back to San Francisco for the beautiful girl. All of these things were not possible if it weren’t for Katrina. Yet, each time I returned home, something was missing. Something didn’t feel right.

Eventually, I figured it out. So did a lot of people.

Like me, Steven Hoffmann was a native of St. Bernard. After graduating high school in 1997, he joined the United States Air Force. During his enlistment, he said, “I couldn’t wait to move back.” After all, it was home. If you moved away from that fixed point on the map, you might understand his feelings. Even if you didn’t love where you’re from, it’s still familiar. When you went home, you ran into familiar faces at the grocery store, ate at familiar restaurants, and maybe even felt grounded. When Steven finally returned home in 2010, everything had changed. “Things changed. People didn’t seem as nice. Going to the grocery store was different.” The close knit community of “Da’ Parish,” as its lovingly referred to locally, used to be a breathing, living thing. It was by all means its own culture.

When Katrina flooded all but 8 of the 27,000 homes in St. Bernard Parish, it acted as an indirect genocide of our hometown. The social fabric of the parish drowned. The compounded effects of a little known hurricane named Rita caused residents to be homeless for months. For some, the easiest way to cope was to move on. Homes in the surrounding parishes were being purchased for more than their worth. The northern neighbor of St. Bernard, St. Tammany Parish, was jokingly called St. Tammanard because of the newly merged population.

When the media began to refer to us as Katrina refugees, I cringed. After all, we were still Americans. We weren’t refugees from other countries. But as our family, friends, and communities began to scatter, the core of who we were was fading away. Home was growing distant in the rearview mirror of our collective exodus. Nicole Bauer LaCava lived her entire life in Chalmette and says this is what she lost the most.

“Our family, friends, and everything we needed used to be literally two minutes away. Now we can’t have a family gathering without someone traveling at least an hour.”

After I moved away, I noticed how deep my relationship with home was when I’d visit. My arrival in New Orleans would spark a frenzy of messages and phone calls—all wanting to get together and catch up. Had Katrina never happened, this would have been an easy task, but with everyone having been displaced to surrounding cities and parishes, it was a logistical nightmare. My brother was in Hammond, my parents were in Slidell, one group of friends were in Metairie, some were in St. Bernard, and others were in Covington. Each of these places was an hour or more away from one another. Add the conflicting responsibilities of kids, jobs, and other obligations then you begin to realize how getting everyone together could be considered an Olympic sport.

Some of us were determined to make it back to Da’ Parish. Folks like Tiffany Clement Andrisani.

“I was one of the people who couldn’t wait to get back to St. Bernard after the storm. We bought a fixed up house in Meraux. I lasted about two years. I just couldn’t do it. The home that I knew was no longer there. The place lacked character. In place of all the home grown businesses that we had grown up with were a bunch of generic, throw ‘em up quick places mixed with the big chains coming in with their new and shiny buildings. Nothing held memories. I can still drive down Judge Perez today and feel like I don’t know where I am.”

Tiffany now lives in Long Island, Nicole lives in Jefferson Parish, and Steven lives in St. Tammany. It took us a while to realize what we really lost in Katrina. What remains of the St. Bernard Parish we knew and loved can only be found in our hearts and souls. And if home is where the heart is, there are stories to be told.

The memories we can never show you will be our burden to carry for the rest of our lives. At least we still have those, right?

You can call us flood victims or survivors. Heck, you can even call us displaced—but without a place to call home, may as well call us the refugees. No matter what name you give us, whether you love or loathe your home — I hope you’ll be grateful that you still have one.

 

 

Eight years ago today, Katrina’s strong winds and storm surges affected the lives of many on the Gulf Coast. My story is one of many, so please find yours and tell it.

Thank you to Swede White, Tiffany Andrisani, Christopher Ard, Carlyn Leeds, Steven Hoffmann, Brandon Cressy, and Nicole LaCava for your contributions.

To the people who grew up in St. Bernard Parish, this is for you … and ya mamma n dem.

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Storytelling

To My Dearest Birth Mother from Joseph Justin

Replying to a thirty-three year old letter

September 24th, 1979, New Orleans, LA

My dearest child,

This may be the most difficult letter I will ever have to write. As I pen this letter I have just returned from sitting with you in the hospital. You were running a high fever and were hospitalized for observation. You are a strong baby and might I add a beautiful baby as well. You are a fighter, and thank God you’ll make it. It doesn’t surprise me, for during my pregnancy we went through some rough times. There were times I wondered if we would make it but, we did. With every month that went by you grew. I could feel you moving around inside me and the love for you created a bond between us. A bond that will be with me until death.

Your ancestors are of good American stock – French, Irish, English – Upper middle class – Educated & Proud.

I am at this date eighteen. Your father was twenty-one. I said was because he was killed in an auto accident. We were young and marriage could have been possible, I suppose, but I felt in order to give you the very best that life has to offer, I would surrender you for adoption. I went to the best avenue open and that was Catholic Charities. Through them I know they would find you the best parents possible. Your adoptive parents love you as much as I do. Please understand my darling little one, I love you, and because I love you so much, I was able to pick a future for you. Please always treat your adoptive parents with the love and respect they deserve. Their star is one of the brightest in heaven.

There won’t be many days that pass that I won’t think of you and wonder about you. When you are older and you want to see me, I’ll always be there for you. Your adoptive parents will be able to assist you in finding me.

Walk through life my dear little one, proud with your head high and walk with the thought that besides your adoptive parents, there is someone who loves you dearly for life and that someone is your,

Mom

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July 1, 2013, San Francisco, CA

My dearest birth mother,

It’s been nearly thirty-four years since you wrote this letter to me. I would have replied sooner but so many things have prevented me. Now, that doesn’t mean that there has been a day I haven’t thought about you – where you were or how you were doing. I used to sometimes pretend that you were in a crowd with me or maybe we were sharing an elevator. How cool would that have been?

My curiosity felt like it would have come to a head when I first tried to find you. Unfortunately, neither my parents nor Catholic Charities could help. You see, not long after you penned my letter and my parent’s letter, my adoption was sealed upon the Act of Surrender. The State of Louisiana told me if you and I signed up for the Adoption Reunion Voluntary Registry, they’d proceed with facilitating our reunion.

I was excited. After all, you mentioned that you’d be willing to see me when I was older. When the letter arrived to inform me of the next steps, I opened it with a sense of purpose – recording to memory the dramatic unveil. Sorry, at this moment we regret to inform you that your birth parents have not registered. I felt my soul deflate through a prolonged sigh like a cheap balloon. There was so much I wanted to say. Even if it were a simple thank you. Eventually your own words would lift me up: You are a fighter. For the next decade or so, I’d use what little clues I had to find you. Here’s what I knew:

  • You were 18 years old, 5’5 and a half, weighed 110 lbs and had brown hair, hazel eyes, and a fair complexion.
  • My birth father was 21 years old, 6′, weighed 180 lbs and had brown hair, brown eyes, and a fair complexion.
  • My birth father died in a car accident prior to my birth.
  • You entered the adoption program in July 1979.
  • You were in 11th grade and employed in retail sales, enjoyed reading, sewing, and cooking. You also had an allergy to penicillin.
  • It did not appear that your parents were still married.
  • Your father was 42 years old; your mother was 39 years old.
  • You had two siblings – a brother, age 19, and a sister, age 16.
  • You were born in and residing in Louisiana at the time of my birth.
  • My birth father was employed as a carpenter and graduated from high school.
  • After my birth, I developed a high fever and was hospitalized. You would visit and call nightly to check on me.
  • You did not complete the Act of Surrender until I was well and discharged from the hospital.
  • You named me Joseph Justin at birth.

Unlike most adoptees, I had a goldmine of knowledge about you and my father. However, each attempt to find you would end in both mental and physical exhaustion. So many possibilities, so many forks in the road. Most recently, I used databases to find twenty-one year old males who died in 1979. It was a breakthrough, but it would eventually break me. The only way to continue my journey was to call the parents and siblings of men who died at the tender age of twenty-one, opening a wound that began healing thirty-three years ago.

The last family I called pushed me away at first – Sorry, our son didn’t have any children – but my phone would ring an hour later.

It had been three decades since their son died in a car accident and here I was, answering to see if, in the off chance, I was the missing piece in their lives. They were eager to help. They were keen on me being their long lost flesh and blood.

I’m a fighter, but the gravity of it all hit too close to home. I’m happy to inform you that my adopted family has been just as amazing as you had hoped. The three of us became four when they adopted my little brother and, like any family, there were rough times but for the most part we were always there for one another – especially after Katrina. While the flood took our home and personal belongings, we hadn’t lost what was most important. We still had each other! After the storm, I thought nothing could break us, but I’d be proven wrong one night in 2010. My little brother died in a car accident, coincidently at the age of twenty-one. For the last three years, my fighting spirit has been dedicated to keeping my family strong, but when those parents reached out in hopes of finding their grandson, I couldn’t help but imagine what it felt like to be in their place.

After we concluded that they weren’t my birth father’s parents, I remained in shock. I stared at the long list of names, the long list of “maybes”, and I couldn’t go on. I might be a fighter, but I’m also extremely compassionate. I can’t do that to another family again.

That doesn’t mean I’ve given up. It just means that I need you to meet me halfway. If you’re out there and you still want to see me, I hope this letter will reach you. And in the event that it does reach you and you’ve changed your mind, please don’t feel bad. Just know that there is someone who loves you dearly for life and that someone is your,

Joseph Justin

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Storytelling

Why the Red Wedding Won’t Be As Culturally Significant As Someone Shooting J.R.

Two nights ago, viewers of the HBO series Game of Thrones paid witness to a massive television event – but just how massive was it?

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SPOILER WARNING!!!

In terms of today’s media landscape the Red Wedding was a pretty big deal. If you don’t know what it was, then let me tell you. Rob Stark and family/army fall for a trap when trying to make good on his broken oath to marry into the Frey family. The trap is a blood bath that leaves him, his wife, his unborn son, his mother, and his army defenseless and dead. If you haven’t figured it out by now, GoT is the poster child for “killing your darlings” – a term used in writing and storytelling to emphasis that good drama is when characters you love suffer.

The reactions on the Internet have been loud and clear, but can easily be summed into a collective “WTF did I just watch!” One friend’s reaction was to wonder if the Red Wedding was going to be this generation’s Who Shot J.R.? If that isn’t familiar to you, you were probably born too late, but I’ll throw you a bone. J.R. was one of many characters from the hit CBS show, Dallas. Not the 2012 reboot/sequel series, but the original in the 1980s. When he was shot in the “A House Divided” episode of the show, it made the headlines of major newspapers. There’s no doubt it was big effing deal. Anyone who watches Game of Thrones would probably agree with my friend’s statement about the Red Wedding’s significance. I can agree to an extent, but the realist in me has to say that the Red Wedding will not be as culturally significant as J.R. being shot and here’s why.

When J.R. was shot in March 1980, 76,300,000 American households owned a television and a whopping 76% of them were tuned in to watch J.R. take the bullet. It wasn’t just devout fandom either; cable TV was in its infancy back then (showing mostly reruns), so with a handful of network channels Dallas was pretty much the only thing on TV worth watching. By the end of the series, Dallas boasted a viewership of 33.3 million viewers that equated to about 22% of American households. Today it’s hard to find touting numbers like this for hit shows like Game of Thrones. Simply because it doesn’t make sense – especially since it’s on HBO and doesn’t sell ad space to corporations. Luckily if it’s easy to figure out. Nielsen, the media statistics company, estimates that there are 114.7 million American households with a television and 5.2 million of them were tuned into the Red Wedding episode, named “The Rains of Castamere”. For those, like me, who can’t do that math easily in their head, it adds up to 4.541% of television viewers.  60% versus 4.5%. If this were a pizza pie and you were starving, which piece of the pie would you rather?

What made J.R. being shot such a culturally relevant phenomenon was the amount of people who were experiencing it at the same time. The only delay in experience would have been the east and west coast airtime delay. Even then the only way someone in California would have had it spoiled for them is if they had an asshole cousin who was rich enough to pay the long distance fees to ruin it. Today the media landscape is vastly different and is at the heart of why I feel the Red Wedding will not be a cultural milestone for this generation.

First, the series is based off a series of best-selling novels, so readers have diluted the impact by either hinting subtly or loudly with their anticipation for the episode. The east coast/west coast thing is now too hard to ignore. I purposely had to ignore social media until I had finished the episode. No longer does it cost $2 a minute to call from NYC to SF, it’s just a tweet or a status update away. Essentially I’m saying that the experience wasn’t a collective one. It’s been spread out. We are in control of our viewing, so the 5.2 million might not include folks who will watch it OnDemand or with HBO’s online service, HBO GO. Top that with the fact that Game of Thrones also happens to be the most pirated title on illegal torrents. The other reasons are because of the amount of media choices available for consumption. Instead of a handful of channels, we have thousands. Add in the second screen trend, where you watch TV while consuming other media on your laptop or tablet, and you begin to see the picture I’m trying to paint for you.

We will never have another Who shot J.R.? moment in the United States, there’s just too much content out there for the world to consume. At least the Red Wedding will still stand out from the supermassive black hole that is our current media landscape. And for that, I salute its entire Game of Thrones staff and HBO.

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Storytelling

PopUp Magazine: Song Reader Issue

In 2004, my best friends and I journeyed to from Louisiana to California to attend the Coachella Music Festival. Years later it stands out as one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever experienced. One of the highlights was an impromptu performance by Beck Hanson. Thousands of us packed into a tiny tent stage to witness the musical genius orchestrate an entire performance with noting but a hacked Gameboy and a mic. Years later when Beck would release an album in sheet music form only, needless to say I wasn’t surprised by the advant garde surrounding it.

Last night, for the first time, I was able to experience Beck’s vision through the Song Reader issue of PopUp Magazine. PopUp is easily my favorite event to attend in San Francisco and this issue was something special. Beck and a few hand picked musicians performed pieces from the Song Reader sheet music. This mixed with PopUp’s signature editorial content provided a refill of inspiration that I needed badly.

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Everyone from Dan the Automater to John C. Reilly contributed to the evening’s musical entertainment. Folks like Susan Orlean provided interviews while others like Dan Handler, of Lemony Snicket fame, provided compelling storytelling. It was a departure from the PopUp I’m used to, so I have to say that I left still wanting something. Don’t get me wrong, the music was amazing but the night was about 90% music and 10% storytelling. And yes, songs are storytelling but I’ve grown used to editorial format of each issue and will have enjoyed the Song Reader issue as a form of lagniappe. That translates to “a little sumthin’ extra” where I’m from.

As with every PopUp issue, it’s one and done. Never recorded, never filmed. It lives on as a memory or a oral history. So in the end, isn’t that at the heart of what makes PopUp special? If not one else is listening, I still ask myself.

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Advertising, Storytelling

Eleven Inc and Sun Valley Invite You To Skip Town

One of San Francisco’s finest advertising establishments, Eleven Inc,  released the much anticipated interactive piece for Sun Valley today. The interactive piece lets city dwellers skip stones remotely at a lake in Idaho via an internet-connected robot.

It’s a great idea all around. It allows you to experience heading out to the great outdoors from your cubical. The best part, if you skip the farthest between July 9th and July 14th – you’ll win yourself a trip to the resort.

Kudos to the creative team at Eleven for coming up with this and a major kudos to the production team for pulling it off. I can picture future job posting from ad shops calling for electrical engineers to build more cool shit like this.

Try it out for yourself: www.stoneskippingrobot.com

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