The stories we know

“I don’t know how you live in such a shithole state”, they said.

I was sitting at a sidewalk table in a college town in New England a few years ago. I had been invited up because this church thought I knew something about building relationships between their congregation and the unhoused folks who slept on their porch at night, and were willing to pay me to talk to them about it.

Typically when I go and consult somewhere, the host organization furnishes a liaison person, who picks me up at the airport, answers my questions, and can help if something goes wrong. This time, the liaison person wanted to buy me lunch before they took me back to the airport.

It was then that they told me I lived in a shithole state. I’m sure they meant it in the nicest possible way.

I must have looked some kind of way because they quickly began to backtrack. But they were sincere, if rude – in light of the history of civil rights atrocities, the history of slavery, the Christian nationalism, the economic devastation, and so on, why on earth do I, an educated, articulate, white cis-gendered male with every kind of opportunity insist on living somewhere like Mississippi.

I was feeling particularly generous that day, and I explained that I knew those stories about Mississippi better than they did and that the reality of those stories is far more horrible than they could know from such a distance.

“But the thing is,” I said, “I know other stories, too.”

I know stories about Fannie Lou Hammer, who rose from sharecropping and eventually took on the Democratic Party and insisted she be seen. I know stories about Will Campbell, a white Baptist Minister who insisted that God loves everybody, even when we wish God didn’t. I know stories about snuff-dipping old white ladies who baked cakes to sell to buy poor black kids some school clothes. I know that the first lung transplant in the whole world was done in 1963 in Jackson, MS, and then in 1972, they mapped the human cardiovascular system for the first time in that same building.

I know stories of resistance, and hope, and resilience, and perseverance. I know stories of people who risked it all on a dream and rose to great heights and then came back to lift others up, too. I know of our storytellers and writers and poets. I know the sounds the gurgling creek that runs near my house makes, the song of the barred rock owl, the rudeness of the bluejay, and the cry of the mockingbird.

And mostly, I know the stories of our people, because I listen for them as I move around this state. On a recent day, I had lunch with farmhands in the Mississippi Delta and then ate supper in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. The week before I was on the Gulf Coast where I saw dolphins at play. I live in the middle of it all on top of an extinct volcano, next to a river where alligators swim.

I know of our diversity – not a corporate buzzword for us but our lived reality. I know of the Chinese folks who live in the Delta and brought us their gifts and taught us new ways to cook the foods we have eaten forever, and the brown-skinned folks who took our foods and made them their own. (A Delta tamale doesn’t taste like any tamale you ever had in any Tex-Mex restaurant – it’s far better than that.) I live among and am known by descendants of the indigenous people who cared for this land in civilized societies when my ancestors were naked and living in caves.

And I know that the people here – Black, white, Brown, Queer, straight, rich, poor – all of us – have been played, and made afraid by powerful people who profit from their fear, and who will do anything to keep us apart, lest we recognize our common cause. And because the people here are afraid, they don’t make wise decisions all the time. None of us are our best selves when we are afraid.

I know all those stories. And those stories are also Mississippi.

My host that day, while rude, wasn’t wrong. They knew a story about Mississippi. But they only knew one story. I know hundreds. Which is why I stay.

It’s also why I tell the stories I do. The job of the storyteller is curation – to decide which stories are told. That is as it should be. But we never want to only tell a story because it just happens to be the only story we know.

Brevity is not my goal

As I have said elsewhere, I am, first and foremost, a storyteller. The writing is a secondary decision and a distant one at that.

However, I learned long ago that some people discount what you have to say if you do not couch it in terms and frameworks they accept as authoritative. So, I try to get the grammar somewhat right, anyway. As much as I wish I did not care what other people with more education than me, more credentials than me, and more platform than me… I do.

Deep inside is still the eight-year-old kid who was laughed at by a grownup for mispronouncing the word “proprietor” as I had only read the word and never heard it said. I am yet to forgive that guy. Honestly, I am yet to try. It’s on my to-do list. Admittedly, it’s at the bottom of the list, but it’s on there.

We carry so many ghosts around with us.

So, anyway, I worry about my grammar. And spelling. And usage. And diction. I use several tools, including spell check and Grammarly, to do final passes on anything I send out into the world to make sure I got all my subject/verb agreement and tenses correct. And the fights I have had with the punctuation robots over how many commas should be in a sentence are legion. Generally, the robot thinks I should use less, errr, fewer, unless I don’t think I should have one, in which case, it thinks I am wrong.

To be clear – I see them as advisors. “Here is a potential problem,” they say, and then I decide on whether to take the advice. I do perhaps one time out of three.

In almost every paragraph of any length, it will highlight at least one sentence and tell me that it is too wordy and should be rewritten. (Ironically, including the one you just read.) But the grammar robots do not understand that brevity is not my goal. Telling a good story is.

A good story needs to be understood, and proper punctuation and grammar can aid in that understanding. But it is far from the only requirement.

A good story should connect with the emotions of the audience. It should be an invitation into empathy, a connection with what is important in our humanity, a point of sameness that we can alight on together in a tumultuous world. It’s hard to do that when reducing the word count is your primary aim.

Recently, the James Webb telescope released pictures from deep space, showing us galaxies and solar systems we did not know existed. The picture accompanying this post is one of them. Here is how NASA described the picture in the Alt-Text, which is the description it provides for screen readers:

The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which, have a blue or orange hue.

The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.

I have two things to say about that description. No, three things.

  • Whoever wrote that cared about the reader. It’s stunning in its description and care.
  • It is not brief. Most alt-text is a sentence or two long.
  • The grammar robot freaked out over that paragraph of text.

People love to harp on Strunk and White’s admonition to omit needless words, but who decides if they are needless? I think clarity and connection are much better goals than brevity.

The First Time

I was 15 years old when I wrote my first short story. I have no idea what the impetus was for choosing the short story format, but if I had to guess, it would be because it would have seemed like less work since, you know, it was short. I wrote most of it in Study Hall and finished it at lunch, so, perhaps 2 hours was spent on this.

The experience was magical. Scenes and words were in my head and flowed from my fingers, pouring out like a gushing stream. I was so proud, and I showed it to three adults, all of whom I trusted, and all of whose remarks involved how violent it was, and I was made to see the guidance counselor as a result. I had no management.

I wish I could talk to 15-year-old Hugh. I wish I could tell him, as someone whose writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers and published books and other esteemed places that he had really good instincts. That his 800-word story that involved *checks notes* three scene changes, drug use, three homicides, teen pregnancy, and suicide was probably a little ambitious for his skill level, but that the plot was great for a first time effort, and that the plot twist at the end was ambitious as hell and something he should be proud of himself for trying.

I would tell him that he told when he could have shown, and that if all his knowledge of drug culture came from Miami Vice, maybe that shouldn’t be central to the story. I would also say how proud of him I was that he took a moral position in his writing, even if it is heavy handed, and that giving the drug dealer a Hispanic name was a bullshit move, but was no doubt also learned from Miami Vice.

Then I would have hugged him, and told him he could, at 15, do things and see things other people couldn’t, and that he could already tell a good story; that the people we trust don’t always know what to do with people like us who make things, and that sometimes they are afraid of us, and sometimes they are afraid for us, and because of that, we have to be careful who we let see the things that matter to us.

But mostly, I would have told him to keep going.

Content Warning: The following story is pretty violent to have been written by a 15 year old virgin who couldn’t bring himself to write out the word “fuck”, even if that is clearly what he was thinking, and involves depictions of murder and descriptions of suicide, but is pretty tame by modern movie standards.

* * *

David had been my best friend since kindergarten and I am a senior in high school now. David’s and my parents were out of town together and left us there so we could go to school Friday.

It was Friday night when, after drinking a ton of beer, David told me about his “enterprise”. He was taking cocaine and cutting it with roach poison so he could make more profit. I was appalled. The very idea of drug use repulsed me, let alone something as deadly as this. I knew David had been doing coke since 10th grade, but I couldn’t have believed him to be capable of so sadistic a crime as this. However, out of ignorance or fear, I ignored it.

Saturday afternoon, I went to his house and then we went over to the mall. That night, about 1AM, we pulled into a Circle K for gas.

“You pump the gas, Johnny,” he said. “I’ve got to use the john. Pull up and wait for me when you’re through.”

I pumped $10 worth and pulled up to the front of the store to wait for David. Rstless, I got out nd was pacing in front of the store when a move caught my eye.

Why was the store owner holding his hands in the air? Why was the woman screaming? WHY GOOD GOD? Why was David holding a gun? The old man handed David a wad of money, and David shot him in the forehead. His wife never stopped screaming. Wet sticky pieces ofher husband’s skull sliding down the wall and all this woman can do is scream.

“Shut up!” David yelled.

The woman continued to scream.

“Shut up, I said!”

David emptied the gun into her chest. The woman, not willing to die, lay writing on the floor.

I know all of this could not have taken more than 5 or 6 seconds, but everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.

David hopped in the truck.

“Drive, dammit! Drive!”

David gave me directions to his “place”. As I drove, my sphincter muscles were clenched tight with fear. Here I was, sitting next to a double murderer, who was calmly sitting there. Every time I would look at David, I instead would see that old woman, writing on the floor, spitting up pink blood.

David’s place was an old beat up shack at the old railyards I had heard about it for years, but this was the first time been there.

David was bad off. It had been six hours since his last hit and he looked pretty bad. He was shaking and breathing fast. Even though it was November 8th he was sweating like a cold water pipe in the middle of July.

“Did you see them? Did you see that woman scream,” David asked?

David had went pretty far before, but this was it. He had done the unthinkable. He had killed 2 innocent people in cold blood. I made up my mind. In the morning I was going to call the cops. I had a load of scholarships, and I did not want this to mess them up.


He was whimpering, crying with joy from the money and pain from his habit. It was too much. I flew into him.

“Dammit, why did you rob that store?”

“Why not?”

“You killed 2 people for…” I counted the money “245 dollars. Why?”

“I needed the money to buy a rock. I can make over $2,000 with that.”.


I was disgusted. Then it was about the same old thing. Money.

“Look Johnny. Go to the mall. Just outside the door is a guy named Ramone. Tell him it’s for me, and give him the money. He will give you a package, OK?”

Why I agreed, I’ll never know. Maybe I was still in shock over what happened. Or, maybe I already had an idea of what would happen.

Well, I went to the mall and got his package. I also stopped by the hardware store.

I went into the shack. David was sweating bad. I gave him the package and he tore it open like a kid at Christmas. He cut a line and snorted his life-giving powder. Revolting how one’s life could be dependent on something so terrible.

He stood up, euphoric, for about 30 seconds. Then he toppled, fell, face first onto the floor, writhing and hacking at the fluid in his lungs. Amazing what effect roach poison and coke will have on a person.

If I live to be 100, I will never forget how he looked at me as if I had betrayed him. Well, maybe I had, but what I have done is wipe a little of the scum off the earth. Is that so bad? I know I must answer in hell for what I’ve done, but my girlfriend is pregnant, and I want my kid to grow up in a decent world.

The above was the author’s last words, found in a sealed letter beside his body. He shot himself through the head at approximately 4AM Sunday morning.