Revisiting Sonder Stories
What to do with the burden
The background music of my childhood was crime. Assaults, domestic abuse, DUIs, we heard it all.
In a situation similar the Cheever’s The Enormous Radio—in an era before police procedural television—my grandparents kept a police-band radio scanner on all the time. They knew the codes by heart: a 10-94 stood for illegal street racing. A code 10-10 meant a fight in progress. In our small town every address was common knowledge, so you knew the instant smoke was reported at the Hendricks’ farm (code 10-73), or old Mr. Ferrians was stumbling home drunk from the tavern (code 10-56). That scanner was another vehicle for the sonder story. A peek into the personal lives of people.
Another example of the sonder story is A Penny for Your Thoughts, the 1961 Twilight Zone episode. A character throws a penny to a news vendor, and it lands on its edge. As long as the penny stays balanced on edge, the character can read everyone’s thoughts. Chaos ensues.
Long after that, a porn movie used the same premise. But of course all the thoughts that get read are dirty thoughts and trigger sex acts. This raises the question of whether a sonder story creates empathy and pain or it creates an opportunity to exploit others. I’ll offer a compromise.
A hat-tip to Colton
After workshop recently Colton Merris buttonholed me. He pointed out how the secrets shared in Miss Lonely Hearts are voluntary, while those shared in other stories were involuntary. That brought to mind the religious act of Confession, where sinners share their secrets with the priest and ask for forgiveness. As a kid I wanted to be that priest, to hear the secret, shameful parts of everyone’s lives. It was the same impulse that made me long for a pair of X-Ray Specs advertised in the back of comic books.
As a priest, I’d be privy to everyone’s sins. Wearing X-Ray Specs I could see them naked. Same difference. But what could I do with the burden of such inside knowledge? Therein lies the rub. The answer was journalism. As a reporter I had carte blanche to contact strangers and ask questions. Better yet, I had an outlet for the knowledge. I’d package it and sell it to some news outlet.
As a reporter you’re usually seeing people at either the best or worst moments of their lives. This recipe for bipolar disorder might account for why journalism is the second-highest profession to produce alcoholics. Only dentists rank higher on the most-likely-to-become-a-drunk scale. In a typical day I might report on a lottery winner, then a young couple whose infant had died, then a successful jobs training program, then a fire in a retirement home with multiple dead. The job was always: Get the facts. Get some quotes. Write it up, and dump the story into copy editing.
Then process the day of dead bodies and gala supermarket openings by throwing back a few beers. In downtown Portland, Oregon, a bar called Clementine’s on SW Broadway was the watering hole for blitzed Oregonian and Oregon Journal reporters. The one time I went there with a reporter I have no idea how I got home.
So reporting is not the perfect answer to sonder pain
Before my father was murdered in 1999, he’d been a contest fanatic. He’d retired early to his cabin on Mt. Spokane and subscribed to magazines that told him about every mail-in contest. The Campbell’s Soup contest. The Pennzoil Challenge. And how to fill out postcards and enter them all. He’d enter himself, then each of his kids, then my father would enter cousins, his own siblings, everyone. As a result, for years after his death family members were getting odd-ball prizes in the mail. A set of golf towels printed with the logo of Babybel cheese. Over-sized coffee mugs advertising the Friends television series.
These were all sixteenth-tier prizes. What the contests called “consolation prizes,” and the fact that they seemed to arrive via my dead father made each one a little tragedy. I mentioned this to a friend—she worked for Detroit Art Services, a technical artist who drew exploded parts diagrams—and she told the same story back to me. Her own recently dead dad had also been a contest fanatic, and since his death not a week went by without her getting product-branded swag. None of it worth anything, but all of it sent as a “consolation prize.” More people told me of being in the same situation, and I wrote all of this into a feature for the Los Angeles Times.
And that seems to be the alpha and omega of sonder stories. In fiction we depict them as painful, but the solution for that pain is to depict them. By recognizing a pattern common to many people’s lives, we find comfort for ourselves, and for our readers. The solution isn’t to smash the enormous radio or the closed-circuit video system. The solution is to find the patterns and use them in your own work.
Case in point J. D. Salinger, who survived WWII in the Hurtgen Forest while everyone around him was exploded by artillery shells aimed to explode the dense trees so that, in effect, the dead died by being shredded by wood splinters. But he survived, as did Joseph Heller his own battles. As did Kurt Vonnegut and Edward Everett Tanner III. All of whom weathered the worst by retreating into fantasy. Salinger wrote and rewrote Catcher in the Rye while under fire. Vonnegut dug the bodies out of the bomb shelters of Dresden. And Tanner? He rewrote his immediate reality and stayed intact by inventing a free-spirited aunt named Mame Dennis, Auntie Mame—“Live! Live! Live!”—and reinventing himself as the author Patrick Dennis. Each of these writers had outlived his horrors by embracing a new reality where chaos and absurdity were the norm. Where loved ones died, but love did not.
The task of any creative person is to recognize such patterns common to all of our lives. And to have the skill to depict them. And to have the courage to share the resulting insight.
That’s the benefit of workshop. And of “crowd seeding.” To share an aspect of your life and see if others share the same experience.
Craft everything painful into something that can be discarded and declared complete. Find the patterns between our lives. Escape the isolation of being a unique snowflake, and take comfort in seeing yourself as one of many people enduring the same bullshit.
My heart goes out to the owner of Cedars in Youngstown, where Midwest Story Night was held. Their matriarch died last week, the keeper of all their recipes. I’ll always be grateful to Cedars for hosting the events.
Stay tuned. This week I’ll be dissecting the story Christening. More Gloves Off coming soon.