Is it All Just the Same Old Story?


Have you had that experience where you are interested in a specific topic or thing, and suddenly, you come across it everywhere you go? For example, when I was pregnant, I suddenly saw pregnant women everywhere. It was so uncanny, that I thought there must be a baby boom. There wasn’t. I saw all those pregnant women because my focus and awareness had shifted based on my current life experience.

So when I got a puppy this past November, I was suddenly aware of all things dog. There are many upsides to this all-things-dog awareness, but also a downside; like down there on the ground on the grass or even on the sidewalk. Yeah. I’m talking shit. And unfortunately, those poop chunks and the dog owners who don’t clean them up are now the things I notice everywhere I go.

I thought I’d share a photo gallery of my little producer rather than the product itself, because let’s face it, dog poop is gross, and I have yet to meet a person who hasn’t at some point in their lives, stepped in a pile of it.

Now imagine you have a puppy who explores the world by putting everything in her mouth, and suddenly you are looking at those stretches of green grass with a whole new perspective. Everything is a threat, from a piece of plastic, a cigarette butt or grosser yet, another dog’s droppings. Due to this newfound perspective, I have seen in detail just how much poop is left on the ground and it is not only disgusting and irresponsible, but also seriously bad news from an environmental and health standpoint.

I don’t understand dog owners who think it’s okay to leave their dog’s shit on the ground. In what universe is leaving poop bombs in public open space a good idea? I thought about writing a short story about dog poop as an example of the difference daily steps can make if just one more person takes action. If just one dog owner, who currently turns a blind eye every time their dog defecates, were to actually start cleaning that poop up, they could make a molehill out of a mountain! Now imagine a campaign where a bunch of remiss dog owners join in and start picking up after their dogs. Suddenly Dutch sidewalks and green areas nationwide would be much cleaner and dog owners more socially considerate! I don’t know if it would be a very interesting short story, but I think it would be, like Ellen, relatable.

Speaking of stories, I am currently reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. At one point, the fictional main character attends a writing workshop by fictional author Sarah Payne. Lucy reflects about something this author said during the workshop: “‘You will have only one story,’ she had said. ‘You’ll write your story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.'”

This struck me as true and untrue at the same time. Are all the story ideas I have just a new version of the same old story? Does this one-story idea also apply to non-fiction? Are all blog posts different versions of the same story? John Steinbeck had a more complex explanation of this same concept in his novel East of Eden.

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”  

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

While I was reading My Name is Lucy Barton, my son was sitting beside me with a pile of books at his side. He’d rather be sitting in front of his PS4, but there’s a reason he was sitting next to those books. My son wants a cell phone and we came up with a complicated list of things he needs to do before he is eligible to get one. On the list is reading a minimum of five novels (Hey, whatever it takes to get your pre-teen to read!). Donald Duck and other comic or heavily-illustrated books (think of The 52 Story Treehouse) don’t count. He was having trouble deciding on a novel, so I pulled five from his shelf. The Lightning Thief and The Hobbit were among the choices written in English. He skipped over those and picked up Alone on a Wide Wide Sea by Michael Morpurgo. He weighed it in his hands, perhaps noting that it lacked the heft of the other books in the stack, and flipped to the back cover to read the blurb.

“I feel like I already read this one,” he said.

“No. I don’t think you have,” I responded.

“Yeah. True. I haven’t read it, but I read the summary on the back and there’s a kid that goes on a journey and is trying to find a lost family member, and goes on a long adventure where strangers help him. It’s like his other novel Twist of Gold; the same old story but with a different set up. I don’t feel like going through that story again.”

An eleven year old on the topic of the same old story.

My son had just reconfirmed the concept that there is only one story that people tell. It struck me as profound and sad and insightful all at once. Although my son seemed to enjoy reading Twist of Gold, he already knew the formula and considered it all just one story.

Green by Kristin Anderson

I thought about my first novel Green, where a young environmentalist, disheartened by a major oil spill, sets out to inspire others to make daily changes to reduce their dependency on oil. One theme in the novel was the idea that the actions taken by an individual actually do matter.

Wait! Isn’t my short story idea about a dog owner finally cleaning up his own dog’s poop basically another version of the same story? Or as Steinbeck once said in his only-one-story concept: “‘. . . the hard, clean questions. Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?’” In other words, have I picked up that dog poop?

I suppose that the individual is the heart of every story, whether it is fiction, a news broadcast or a campaign featuring an individual’s struggle to connect us with a global issue. It is what strikes a chord in our soul, what makes a global, distant problem shrink down to the individual, human level. Where we shift from indifference to saying: Woah, that could have been me, or yes, I do care about this person’s story and I choose to be part of the solution. I choose for the good.

If you bring it all down to the most basic level, the one story is this: Clean up your own shit and the shit of your dog. Everyone will be happier in the end, including you.

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