Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Real-Life Stories that Resonate

Why do certain real-life stories haunt us for years, while others are forgotten almost instantly?

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave a party where the guests were asked to bring an object or a photograph and tell a story from their past. I’d just been organizing some old papers, and I brought a series of pictures my dad, a photographer in the South Pacific in WWII, had taken of a funeral in New Guinea. Since I found the photos after my father’s death, I never knew whose funeral it was. He must have meant something to my father, since he kept the photos all those years. But what horrified me about the photos was the background. Row after row of stark, newly dug graves. At the time I first found them, I was grieving over my father’s death. Those pictures made me realize he was one of the lucky ones; he survived and came home to marry his sweetheart and father two children and enjoy a long and rewarding career. Just this weekend, someone who was at that party told me her husband still retells that story. It obviously struck a chord with him.

I remember reading years ago about an American man and his Vietnamese wife who were on the last plane to take off from Saigon when the city fell to the North Vietnamese. The woman had just delivered a child by caesarian, and as they ran to catch the plane, her stitches burst open. But what etched the story in my mind was the fact that the newborn baby, still in intensive care, had to be left behind. The child survived, but it was something like twelve years before her parents were able to see her and bring her to the States. Twenty years later, I still remember reading about it.

I suppose we all have stories like that, little snippets of other people’s lives that affect us so profoundly that they become a part of us. What do you think those stories have in common?

8 comments:

Ginevra M. said...

This is completely unrelated to the post, but I just finished reading Why Mermaids Sing and prayed I'd find a link to a website and/or blog so I can say this:

OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD!

What a twisted, absorbing, sad, and wonderful new chapter in the Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries! I can't wait for the next one, which, I hope, will come quickly.

cs harris said...

Thank you, Ginevra! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. The fourth in the series, WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP, is due out in November 2008. I'm busy now starting the fifth!

Chap O'Keefe said...

Your post's real-life stories contain the basics of birth, marriage and death as a reality or threat. These elements will always exercise universal fascination.

Lana Gramlich said...

I think these stories have "a shock to the system" mentally (so to speak,) in them. Something horrific, terribly sad, profoundly beautiful, etc. Something above & beyond the ordinary, either in the GOOD way or (probably more often,) in the BAD way. Such "shocking" kinds of tales can really evoke empathy, as the listener/reader/viewer imagines what that must have been like. Thus the initial "shock" produces an anchoring emotional response.

Steve Malley said...

What do they have in common?

Long odds and love reunited.

I get a little tear just thinking about it...

Steve Malley said...

What do they have in common?

Long odds and love reunited.

I get a little tear just thinking about it...

Lisa said...

I think it's the proximity to the death and tragedy that make them resonate -- even when they happen to strangers. Maybe it's the "there, but for the grace of God" thing that hits us so hard. It's close enough that we know it could just as easily been us. Maybe that's why we can feel enormous empathy and sadness when we SEE events on television, but when we read about them in the paper or hear about the, we don't necessarily have the same emotional response.

cs harris said...

Thanks, everyone, for your insight. Chap, you're right, those three elements are so fundamental. Lana, I know I certainly had that reaction to the Vietnam story--I kept thinking, How horrible to be forced to abandon your newborn baby. And Steve, I hadn't thought about it, but they do both have happy endings. Lisa, I frequently have "There but for the grace of God" moments. I read once that emotional people make the best writers...or at least, it makes a good excuse!