Oh, the tales we’ll tell

Harvey from space

Any stories that come out of Hurricane Harvey that strike lasting chords in readers will have to be just that: stories.

I don’t mean stories in the mold of the weakest, most incorrect definition of the word, which roughly means telling lies for fun and profit. I mean stories that fulfill the term’s purest definition: to convey a series of events which the reader can relate to and take something away from.

Neither do I mean to suggest that those accounts should be fiction, though some historical novels will emerge, where the data, the depth of water, force of wind, amount of rain and number of deaths will – if the book’s any good – be accurately interwoven with several characters who might not have actually existed.

All those facts and figures are certainly important, and will remain recorded.  But what we’re likely to remember about Harvey are countless images of suffering and sacrifice and bravery and compassion.  Many of them you might have witnessed up front and personal; others came via television and photographs in newspapers and on social media.  And others will come from those accounts, those stories – fiction or nonfiction – that will be written down.

If you intend to write one yourself, whether for publication or in a journal so just your children and grandchildren can someday know what happened in your own words, I offer a suggestion that you might find helpful.

Any disaster, especially of the magnitude of the one we just went through on the gulf coast, will, if rendered in mere facts and figures, likely be too staggering for readers to grasp and hold onto.

I learned this first hand. The first proposal of an idea for a novel set in Galveston during the 1900 storm – my first attempt at that difficult genre – that I sent twenty years ago to a publisher came back with a simple warning from a kind editor.  He told me that an overview of thousands of people perishing in a single night in the worst natural disaster in the history of the nation wouldn’t tell a story that readers could see, hear, feel, taste and touch.  But focusing on six or seven characters and following them through that night just might let the reader come along.

Whether or not the novel that I finally wrote and published did that is depends on individual readers.  But I can tell you a long front page story that spilled over into several more pages in the Houston Chronicle a couple of days ago which related the unique circumstances and actions of several very different Houstonians throughout the absolute hell that Harvey delivered is a perfect example of what I’ve come to refer to in my writing classes as The Thing and the Bigger Thing.

In that Chronicle piece, the thing – the focus – is that little cast of characters trying their best to make the best of a bad situation.  The bigger thing is, of course, the situation itself. The article is a perfect marriage of facts and the personal stories of those very real people.  I hope it will be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve read several books about the Titanic disaster, but the best ones focused on some of the passengers and not just on the event.  That’s also true for a couple of films, both titled Titanic, one made in 1977 that was very good, the other in 1953 that was, in my opinion, even better in terms of plot, conflicts, resolutions and depth of characterization.

I’ve also read my share of books and watched countless movies about World War II, which took place several years before I made my entrance. And, strangely enough, my strongest, most persistent image of that enormous event came from a tiny anecdote that I heard about or read that surely wouldn’t have impressed many folks.

One morning when legendary CBS Radio correspondent Edward R. Murrow and his wife were walking through the east end of London after a particularly bad night of German bombing they saw streets full of survivors standing among bodies and debris, comforting each other in front of their ruined homes. Mrs. Morrow noticed a sign over the entrance to a surviving pub that said, in large letters, “Courage”.  She began to sob at that simple word that was both a reminder and an instruction to a nation that she could only respect and weep for.

Murrow couldn’t bring himself to tell her that Courage was a brand of beer.

That, whether it happened or not, is for some reason my favorite example of The Thing and the Bigger Thing for that war.

What will yours be for Hurricane Harvey?  Whatever it is, consider writing it down.




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