Apparently, Stories Do Matter
Why do I always have to relearn the old lessons?
When I was twenty-two, I worked on a dude ranch. Powderhorn Guest Ranch1, located ten miles south of it’s tiny town namesake, in a valley in the Colorado Rockies next to the Cebolla Creek at around 8,500 feet. I was a ranch hand, which meant I did whatever needed to be done. We were a small team with new owners. We rebuilt a lot in those first few weeks before the ranch opened up: fences, horse stalls, culverts, rewiring the electrical, digging out the mountain side to fill in the low spots (first time I got to use a front loader). I drank and smoked and screwed and drank some more. My coworker totalled my Jeep one night in a drunken drive into town. I rode through the mountains on horses to get the lay of the land and map out where we would take guests. It was a wild, western summer. I fell in love probably every other week, with a different person, a different vista, a different life.
During those first few weeks when it was just the employees on the ranch, after the back-breaking work of the day—literally from sunup ‘til about ten at night—we’d sit around the fire, go through a 24 pack of Natty Light, and swap stories of our young lives. Our pasts were almost too cliche: Tex was from Texas (how quaint?) and was the pinnacle of white male Americana. Beanstalk, a tall, lanky kid from Iowa, with the only real experience of being raised on a farm. Katie2, an East Coaster like me with dreams of becoming a chef. Jill, a Mormon from Utah who had never drank or partied ever. Samantha, a Southern girl from the city. And then there was me, having spent the previous summer and fall on an actual working cattle ranch and still grappling with the worst night ever and a painful secret I had yet to tell anyone.
In my drunken inebriation, I opened up about my own stories: hithchiking in California, the real life Cheech and Chong characters I met, going to the Grand National Rodeo in San Francisco with a bunch of gay cowboys, falling off the feeding truck into a pile of cow shit, spending a week in a cabin in Idaho among the most pristine mountains I’d ever seen, killing a woman. During the day, I was a goddamn clam; my life and words were my own, for no one else to hear. At night, I vomitted out those words that festered and rose like bile in my throat.
The owner of the ranch, James (who was the same age I am now, 40, which reminds me that I still don’t have my shit together), joined us around the fire. He drank us all under the table. He had some stories. And, he was a story teller. This was used to entertain and enthrall the guests once they started showing up in late May. As employees, we had to sit with the guests during the morning and evening meals, interacting with them and just generally being generous and kind hosts. Sitting with James was always a treat, for two reasons: the stories were amazing—he was a Detroit cop for twenty years—and I never had to say anything. I kept to my quiet self.
One morning, weeks into the summer season, he pulled me aside after breakfast. He lit a smoke, handed it to me, and then lit one for himself.
“You ain’t talking much, I noticed,” he said.
I took a long drag on the menthol Marlboro. “No, ‘spose not,” I said.
“Look, it’s kind of your job to talk with the guests,” he said, watching and smiling at the guests as they lazily walked out of the cabin after finishing their eggs and bacon.
“I do,” I said, defensively.
“You don’t much talk about yourself.”
“You need to. That’s part of the experience here. To get to know us, to be part of our lives for a week.”
I grunted. “They’re my stories. They got their own. People like to hear themselves talk, not some kid from Connecticut.”
“But that’s the thing. How does some kid from Connecticut wind up on a cattle ranch in California? Most of these people are gonna head back to cubicles and highways. They came here because they need adventure. Your story is a big part of why I hired you,” James said, stepping on the spent butt he tossed to the ground. “So, start talking or I’ll fire you.” I felt his hand on my shoulder and looked up, his easy smile slathered across his face.
The rest of that summer, I forced myself to talk more. I pushed myself to share. Those times, especially during meals, were more straining than the physical labor I did all summer. James taught me a lesson that day, one that I still question. I had started writing today’s post title “Do Your Stories Matter?” already knowing the answer: of course they don’t. I was going to use my time on the ranch as a way to show that stories don’t really matter all that much (what a hell of a thing to think as a budding novelist). But, it is only because I’ve been having a hellish time with my NaNoWriMo novel and, this morning, I thought, “Who cares about the story I’m writing?! What’s the point of this act of writing? No one reads this shit anyway.”
Maybe that’s okay. I don’t think so, though. I am not the type of writer to create in a vaccuum. I am not the type of writer that wants to write stories that only I will read. There’s no point to that. Telling stories is important to me. It is important to share them. Just because I am not good enough to have an audience or readers doesn’t mean I should stop. The novel I’m writing is a chaotic, disastrous, tossing and turning fretful night’s sleep. I can’t use the excuse that it doesn’t matter. Stories are what bind us to one another. They are how we share our experiences and create real connections. Stories allow us to get to know the other, even if they are fiction (sometimes moreso when they are fiction).
I need to quit making excuses to not write my story. Because it matters. It matters to me. I have to allow myself to just suck shit. The past twenty-four days has been hard. I’ve faced this growing abyss of words, trying to navigate to the surface but I’m stuck in muddy waters. I stopped treading, allowed myself to sink, gave up to the siren song of it’s not important and it doesn’t matter.
Then I remembered James’s words. Either share my stories or be fired.