18. Lost Stories
It was an early evening in late November. I was happily wolfing down the last bits of a pizza, watching the new documentary about the Velvet Underground, when I got a text message that my friend, the journalist Bill Morlin, had died. Obviously, the news came as a shock. Bill and I had been texting about new projects we’d both been working on just two days before. And then he was gone.
People are here, and then people are not here. There is nothing more eternal and true to me than this statement, and yet in that exact moment I got word of his death, it felt like I had been t-boned without seeing the other car coming. You can tell yourself a story about life and death, and how quickly a life can go, but it doesn’t make the reality hurt any less.
I think about Bill all the time now — more than I ever did when he was alive. I think about how many days he has been dead. I think about him when I read the news — a year since January 6 — and wonder what we’d be talking about. I think about how Bill still doesn’t really feel dead to me. His personality was just too big to be gone that quickly.
In my experience, being a writer can feel like walking around with stories riding on my back, like pushy little imps that won’t be swatted away until I give them attention. So, naturally, one of the first things I thought about after Bill died was how he was in the middle of working on so many important stories. Who could finish them? Or would those stories simply go to the grave with him? Did it matter if his work didn’t get done?
In this great obit by Kelly McBride, at Poynter, she talks about how Bill, on his deathbed, told his wife to grab to a notepad, and he gave her instructions on what to do with all of his unfinished work. His stories mattered to him until his final moments. He knew he was going to die, and yet he did not want his work to go with him into the unknown.
I’ve had those two words rolling around inside my skull the last few weeks. For a long time, I would have said lost stories were the ones I’d been beat to — stories where other reporters got a document before I could, or landed an interview, and I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. But now, I tend to think of that mentality as one of journalism’s biggest downfalls — an old way of thinking driven by ego, not a commitment to truth. I think with so few journalists left out there, it would be better if everyone figured out a way to collaborate, not compete. But I know that’ll never happen, and that getting to a story first gives a fleeting feeling of victory that makes the low-paying profession feel worth the headaches.
Lost stories means something different to me now. I’ve been thinking about the stories we’ve all told ourselves about who we are, about what our path is.
When the writer Joan Didion died in late December, it was like the final nail being driven into the coffin of a fucking terrible year. Brilliant quotes from her work filled obituaries and articles and tweets, and despite the sad circumstances, I loved that her words were suddenly everywhere. Among those much-shared lines was, of course, the famous first sentence from her 1979 collection The White Album. Here’s a snippet:
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
We tell ourselves stories to live.
Here are some storylines: We have a job — so here’s what that means for how we act. We are from a place — and this is how people from around here see things. We are this age or that one — and, let me tell you, life was always better back in my day. Things used to make more sense. We are political party A or B: take a pamphlet on how to think about absolutely everything. You are your bank account. You are your car. You are the worst pain you’ve ever felt. You came from nothing, so you’re nothing. You came from everything, so you deserve it all.
Didion was trying to make us think hard about the stories that comprise the core of life, and how creating myths is a uniquely human quality. But I also think stories are also a way to put ourselves inside cages with invisible walls. Stories become fortresses, or step-by-step instruction manuals.
I’ve started to think stories are one reason why the last couple of years have been so traumatic for everyone. The well-crafted storylines we were living were interrupted. Lost. We got T-boned.
Before 2020, I spent 110 percent of my time working. During that first year of the pandemic, I kept that pace up, scared of going broke. I found new ways to continue the same storyline I’d been living inside for so many years, with some slight adaptations.
One day I had a realization: if the world had changed forever, why then was I still trying to live in an old way?
It was something I had been thinking about a lot when Bill died. Afterward, myriad obituaries told a full picture of his life. He was a grandpa. He loved cats. He had a new puppy. He covered extremism, and was committed to it, but it wasn’t all of him. Not his whole life. Just one part of a very full existence. I knew some of this other side of Bill, but our friendship was tied up around mutual interest in the same kind of journalism.
Understanding more of who he was gave me the answer I’d been seeking for how to interrupt my own story. It was a reminder that a life spent straining at a computer screen is just a story. A life of stress is another story. We can write new stories for ourselves to live inside, but to do that, it takes recognizing in the first place the ones we are already telling ourselves — the pre-made plots we think we need to adhere to, but that were never really ours at all.