What Stories Do
Olan Rogers: My Hero
I think a lot about what sentences do these days. Words and sentences, and what they do, and how they fit together to make a paragraph and what they do. I remember that I used to think that words did only one thing: communicate data. I used to think that anything more that happened with them happened in the minds and hearts of them that received the words. Know what I mean? That the poet wrote the words that gave across the facts, and that the depth and meaning happened in the person who read the poem. (I choose poets ’cause, as I are one — on account of I don’t know how to avoid it — I know it’ll snag on their griddles to get it supposed on them that they — we — write data or facts alone without soul in it. A consummate falsehood.)
(I’ve got Grammarly installed on this computer — I recommend it because they do good — so far it suggests I’ve written two false formations. Which is wrong.)
It never occurred to me that words do more things than convey information.
My big revelation to the contrary came on me slow, like a developing allergy. I don’t know when exactly it happened, but I can pin part of the big revelation on a story told by a guy called Olan Rogers about a time he had some shenanigans in a bathroom stall in a Target bathroom.
The story is hilarious. People should ought to watch it because of how it lifts the spirits and causes the cheeks to ache from laughing.
The first time I saw it, I didn’t laugh. I had been struck by something else.
I had been struck by the way he used language.
Which was, a) often inaccurately, and b) with some of the greatest clarity and purpose of anyone ever. I still don’t know that I’ve come across another person who created such a clear, comfortable path between me and the soul of a story. I just remember that first sensation of being drawn along through a tiny little emotional storm from nowhere in particular to a destination that I had not planned on landing at. And he did it by…basically having a fight with English. A fight that he didn’t win, but English didn’t win either. They both came out as sweaty, panting messes as far as I could tell, a bit unsure whether it’d been a fight or a really quick lay, they weren’t sure. But anyway, they’d both survived.
I’ve thought a long time about that metaphor because I realized something. I realized that words do more than communicate facts and data accurately. I realized that a story isn’t a bunch of facts strung together in order to communicate events. I mean, obviously it’s not. If it were, all novels would read more like police reports than they do. Just the facts, thrown at us so we can divine emotional depth for ourselves. I understood that stories are more than words and words are more than data in some emotional core of me. Sure.
Olan showed me something, though.
He helped me to feel this thing deeply, and he helped me to find a road to gaining some expertise with it.
Olan Rogers uses English the way that a four-year-old uses permanent markers: unabashedly, indiscriminately, and with all the aggression of the unadulterated joy of the explorer with nothing to lose. And the result is so human.
I have always been a bit of a grammar snob, but I realized that I shouldn’t be, because meaning comes from a deeper place than grammar. I have learned that, mostly, my mode is to use this language in a fluent way, to work within the rules as well as I can and fill out meaning that way. But Olan showed me one of the more gorgeous examples around to rock it home to me that meaning flies out of a deeper hole, and the veneer of these words only coaxes a meeting between a reader and that depth of meaning. I might — usually — write accurate sentences and smear words all over stories like some kind of cake of mayonnaise. But if I lose my meaning in the dressing then I don’t know the point of all this.
So thanks, Olan Rogers, for being the joyful mangler of the English language that you be. Keep making a mess of things.
Final count in my argument with Grammarly: seven.