a story in search of a moral

The other day I started to write a post for my friend, Becky McCray. I write at smallbizsurvival.com sometimes, telling stories intended to help small business people see how customers think.

But the post isn’t going to be published there. It’s going here as a writing lesson.

I tell stories. Most of the time they work.  I thought you might like to see what happens when I push too hard.

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I thought I had a great story. It started by talking about a trip that Nancy and I took recently.

I went back to my hometown recently. Okay, to a town near my hometown, about as near as Alva is to Cleo Springs, OK. We used to visit often when I was younger.

Nancy and I stopped by the local newspaper office. There was a guy at the desk for the evening. We chatted for several minutes, swapping stories about where we lived now. He told us to stop by in the summer, when it was warmer. “I’ll still be sitting here,” he said.

We met a friend at a local coffee shop. We sat and talked for an hour and more. Free refills on coffee and a relaxed conversation. It was a relaxing time.

One night we went to a movie. We got there early and so we walked around the park. Part of it was empty, just us and the trees.

Our last morning we went to another coffee shop for breakfast. We had walked a few blocks away to the former library when Nancy realized that she had forgotten her purse. I ran back and asked if anyone had turned in a purse. In typical home-town fashion, the person behind the counter said “Is it a blue one?” Yes. “With flowers?” Yes. And she handed it to me.

That afternoon, we were standing at line at the cafeteria. The cook said, “Say goodbye to her [the person taking orders.] It’s her last day.” “Really,” I said, wondering how long she had been there. “Yep. Tomorrow she’s getting fired,” he said, grinning at her as he said it. It was a long-standing joke.

So far so good. And now, like I often do when I tell stories, I’m going to take a sharp turn.

It was a delightful set of conversations. Of course, the guy at the desk was in the Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago. We had coffee with Liz Strauss, a friend from the internet, at Panera’s. The movie was at Navy Pier, the empty park was enclosed, part of the pier, at the edge of one of the largest cities in the US. The coffee shop where Nancy left her purse was a McDonald’s a block from Michigan Avenue, behind the Wrigley Building. The cafeteria workers were in the food court at the Museum of Science and Industry.

I really did grow up 40 miles from downtown Chicago. It is a city full of real people who have conversations and look out for you and joke and smile.

See what I did? I made you think “small town” by talking about a couple towns in Oklahoma. And then I told my story and then threw you off balance by taking it to Chicago.

The goal was to undermine the stereotypes we have of small towns being friendly and big cities being unfriendly.

But then I ran into trouble.

What makes your small town, your small business unique isn’t that it has all the friendly people. I can find them in franchise stores in big cities.

What I hope is that what makes it unique is you.

That was it. That was the post. But it felt really contrived. I couldn’t find the moral.

Becky knew it right away.

Can I make it Cleo Springs, Okla? That’s still 40 miles away, and actually exists. Someone might be able to get the reference. Still not very many people, because I only know of a few locals who read it. (Mom. Jeanne. Dr. Murrow on occasion.)

Still not sure what to make of the lesson. Which is probably the point.

See, in my first draft, instead of Cleo Springs I said Hawley, a location that showed up on Google maps. But it isn’t a real place. In trying to set up an emotional shift, I went astray.

After explaining the location thing, I tried to explain what I meant.

As far as application, part of it is that small town feeling – home, connected, isn’t limited to small towns. It happens wherever people let it happen. As a result, many people from smaller towns who think that people from big cities should value small town, are missing what is happening. So the draw needs to be not “we’re small town” but “we care, we serve, we are connected”.

Does that make sense? I’m struggling with sense these days, it feels.

Here’s what is happening. I was trying to play with stereotypes. Unfortunately, I was reflecting my own stereotype of what people in small towns think.

My friend Becky was doing great. She kept trying to understand.

But if that same feeling happens in big cities, too, what *is* the advantage? Do you mean that small town businesses cannot rely on small town status alone? Does the ‘be you’ admonition a reference to authenticity?Maybe it’s a call to do more, to be more customer oriented?
Or maybe I’m missing the point altogether.

She wasn’t missing the point. Not really. What she was discovering, or pushing me to discover, was that there wasn’t a real point. What I had done is written a set of interesting observations of human interaction, showing that people are people wherever they are. And then I had tried to turn it into something that said, “small town people, you need to think differently.”

But that wasn’t a fair lesson. Because it was contrived.

It was a story in search of a moral.

Becky pushed on, and there is in what she wrote back to me a new post, one that talks about culture and place. It’s some great reflection that she is taking us to.

But that post will have to start from scratch.

What I realized from Becky’s question is that I had a good story and I had taken it too far.

That’s the risk for storytellers. We sometimes think that everything has a moral, that everything has to mean something. And there are times that there isn’t a moral, that there isn’t some big cautionary tale.

Sometimes we just need to be happy that purses can be found, that friends can meet for coffee, that people who have never met can have nice conversations wherever they are.

2 responses to “a story in search of a moral

  1. Hey, hey, hey, I know there’s way here more than I see. But I know this.

    Real people exist.

    We find them everywhere. We find them in small towns. We find them in big cities. We know them because we hear their their hearts beating.

    Thank you. I heard a heart or two beating through all of this.

  2. Before we were able to reach out an connect with each other through this medium, before it was so easy to touch others across miles, our frame of reference was limited to what was in our immediate vicinity. Our experiences were with our own local places, people, things.

    Now, we find each other anywhere, and have coffee shoppe experiences from our keyboards.

    Not every story has to have a moral – often the observations themselves are the whole point.