Tag Archives: stories

Tales From the Thrift Store

ThriftyI can’t remember the last time I went shopping for clothes. I still wear most of the same things I had in high school and hoped that my minimal wardrobe would last forever when I moved to Lincoln. After losing forty-two buttons, an unfortunate mishap involving bleach, and then proceeding to lose a significant amount of weight in Lincoln by switching to a diet of mostly oxygen and hydrogen, I realized finally that I’m starting to look a little weird in my old clothes. So yesterday, I trekked through the aftermath of Nebraska’s most recent snowstorm to a row of thrift stores downtown, just to take a look around.

For environmental and humanitarian reasons, I will only ever purchase used clothes. The damage has already been done, slave labor already used, Jesus has already cried his usual tears of blood, and at least fourteen MORE elephants won’t be killed in order for me to possess a belt.

As I searched desperately for clothes to fit a short bony dude with a disproportionately big head (which is why I sometimes look like an extraterrestrial), I wondered about the donators. About the reasons for donating. There were stories behind every article of clothing I perused. Maybe a nasty divorce prompted a disappointed man to donate all the ties his ex-wife gave him; maybe a widow donated her husband’s shirts after he took a bullet in Afghanistan; maybe somebody decided he had too many jeans; maybe he gained weight or lost closet space. It’s easy to imprint little fictions onto these old items. It’s fun, even, to wonder about who owned this pair of pink sunglasses or that tacky gold and green parrot-covered sports jacket. I’m a part of the narrative too; everything I give and take changes the equation. I’m an actor in the saga of the exchange of used clothes, and therefore the exchange of unwritten mysteries.

Or so I’d like to think. There may be mysteries, but I’ll never solve them. I may never even figure out the premise. What really matters is that now I can read at a conference in a neon green sports jacket with gold leather sleeves and smiling parrots patterned across the whole thing.


Like a Writer in a Candy Store


My books are on my shelves, my violin is tuned, and my spice rack is full. I’ve finally settled into Lincoln, Nebraska, with a few weeks before I start my first semester of graduate school. I spent yesterday exploring the city on foot, and a few sunburns and several hours later I returned to my apartment exhausted but satisfied.

Wandering alone in a big city is a new experience for me. I knew my former home of Flagstaff was relatively small, but getting lost in Lincoln proved to me that I am only one brick in the world’s framework. In my exploration, every corner I turned showed me a new organ in Lincoln’s body. I flew through decades into the Midwest’s past, into rustic red brick buildings, some dating back to the 1870s. I perused this place’s history, its survival on the plains, and those strange intersections where the past meets the present in the connective tissue of reinvigorated neighborhoods and gentrification.


Although being in a big city should be overwhelming, for a writer it’s like being a kid in a candy store. I can use any one of a dozen metaphors to describe my place in the city, a cell in a body or a brick in a building, and all of them describe how I feel. They all express my belief that individuality is overrun by community, and I’m sure that Lincoln will organically change me as a person regardless of whether or not I want it to. But for a writer, a city is just one big candy store because it’s not made of bricks or cells, but of stories. There is street art, there is sewage, there are coffee shops, there are dimly lit bars, and right now all of it is new to me.


One day of exploration has already transformed me. Today, I’ll find a few good places to write on campus and around town, all of which are within walking distance of my apartment. But for the moment, I am still freefalling through Lincoln’s grid of stories, hardly able to contain my excitement.


P.S. A surprisingly fitting song to have stuck in one’s head while wandering around lost in a new city is H.S.K.T by Sylvan Esso. I also find it suitable for writing about cities.

Plot and Character/Character and Plot

PlotsRecently in a screenwriting class I am taking, the instructor discussed a list of key elements in storytelling, and in that list plot preceded character. A friend turned to me and said, “Character should come first.” I agreed with him, but for a long time I wondered why, in a screenwriting class, plot might come first. In my own writing, I try to put character before plot, because I believe that stories are a direct product of thoroughly developed stories.

However, I realized that there are countless examples of stories that put plot before character, and most of them, I think, tend to be blockbuster movies or out-of-this-world TV series. In plot-based stories, the conflict does not come from the characters; it comes from external forces, such as alien invasions, nameless monsters, the emergence of zombies, stock criminals, static gangsters, or in a post-9/11 world, faceless terrorists with no personality. For me, these stories tend not to be memorable. The characters don’t fight complex issues, face moral ambiguity, or struggle with self-doubt. Instead, these stories are driven only by a quota of bad guys to kill.


In contrast, it seems that characters themselves are what we remember most about stories. James Bond, for instance, is not a mindless thug but a charming, intelligent, and classy hero; the Daleks are terrifying villains because they remind us that each great society has attempted to exterminate a weaker one. The Dude in The Big Lebowski remains prophetic because he is the only calm figure in a world of fascists and nihilists. Jane Eyre’s wit amidst her plight continues to make her a compelling protagonist. Hamlet is still a pitied hero because he is effectively an angst-ridden teenager. Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation is a hero for our own time because of her valiant optimism when cynicism is the norm. Many young readers see themselves in Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, and I personally see what I want to become in Doc from Cannery Row.

I think that all great stories must be driven by character, and not just a ticking time bomb or the gradual buildup of generic bad guys. Characters execute the plot idiosyncratically. They alone have the power to turn the story around, reverse the trajectory audiences follow, and make decisions relevant to contemporary issues. The characters Bilbo Baggins and Smaug may simply be updated versions of David and Goliath, but they are household names because they are unique; they remind us of our extremes, insignificance and ego, and the courage and fear therein; and Bilbo makes a far more intriguing character because he has the option to stay home, or turn back, or steal from the Dwarves. Smaug is equally intriguing because he has already won long before the tale begins, but cannot resist inviting more conflict. These stories are truly great because their authors let the characters move the story, rather than the other way around.