What I’ve Learned About the Value of Storytelling in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Since August, 2011

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Back in August, before the beginning of the school year, I was sitting on the red sofa at Mighty Good Coffee in Ann Arbor, sipping a latte and reading one of the thirty-one books that fiction students in the MFA program are required to read for their reading exam. An older woman with a massive expanse of gray curls sat down beside me and began munching a cookie, and after evaluating whether or not I was willing to have a conversation with her, explained to me why she was so happy:

“I’ve just gotten a massage and I know that my massage therapist loves me because after he finished, he folded my socks a certain way. Look! That means ‘I Love You.’ If he folds them this way, see, (the lady rearranged the top of her sock) that means ‘I only want to be your friend,’ but he didn’t, and so he loves me.” She returned her sock to its previous “he loves me” configuration, and smiled some more.

I thought that was a great story and sentiment, even if it wasn’t true. She was beaming like a girl in love, fiddling with her socks, cookie crumbs flying with the velocity usually rendered by a toddler or Cookie Monster. I loved that her story was romantic and improbable, slightly strange and utterly human. I guessed it wasn’t true because after I’d bore witness to her adorable sock/love story, she proceeded to tell me by way of helping me that the hospitals in Detroit won’t steal your clothes the way the hospitals in Ann Arbor will, which police officers she’s had sex with, and which churches have the best-tasting free dinners.

I am in one of the top creative writing programs in the country, and I could never come up with something as lovely as “the way he folds my socks means he loves me.” I was floored by this story and told it to anyone who would listen to me. This woman can, and she’ll never be in any creative writing program because, well, she’s a mentally ill street person with cookie crumbs all over her shirt.

I’m not here to opine or pontificate on the creativity of the mentally ill. I’m sure I could Google some sort of scientific article pointing to the intricate wiring of the human brain and how just the tiniest bit of upset can cause all manner of things to happen to a person, and that clever sock-related love tales told to strangers in coffee shops ranks pretty low on the havoc scale. That’s not why I felt the need to tell everyone I know the story of the socks.

A few months later, I went to a local salon to get my hair cut and at some point during normal haircut chatting, the woman who was doing my hair told me she was Dominican. Being a great fan of Junot Diaz, I, of course, asked her if she’d read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is a question I feel confident asking anyone, Dominican or not. Usually, the question is met with, “Yes, what an amazing book!” or “No, I should check it out.”

The woman cutting my hair frowned. “Why do people ask me if I’ve read that book all the time? I have my own stories. I don’t need to read someone else’s.”

I had to admit: she had a point.

What was I supposed to say to her? Sorry, you’re wrong. Junot Diaz’s stories are better than your stories because they are lovingly bound into book form, because he spends years writing a gorgeous narrative, because the august Pulitzer committee saw fit to bestow their highest honor upon his stories, and while I’ll agree that he’s not the only Dominican writer, that he does not represent all the stories the people of the Dominican Republic have to offer, you might want to reconsider your position because, um…

I’m starting to wade into uncomfortable waters.

The Pulitzer committee declined to give an award to a work of fiction this year. It was a popular topic of conversation among my writer friends until it wasn’t. I agreed, it was a lost opportunity to support writers and writing, to elevate our craft, to slap some gold foil stickers on the covers of some books and stack them at the front of the bookstore. Somehow, the Pulitzers seem to be a rather remote, lofty enterprise from where I’m sitting, which is a coffee shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I am midway through one of the top MFA programs in the country, where my novel-in-progress won a Hopwood Award, which is our local version of Pulitzers.

What they say, what I say, what everyone says to an aspiring writer: “Better get used to rejection!”

I declined to ask my hair stylist for one of her stories.

I declined to ask the woman at the coffee shop with the socks and the cookie crumbs for another one of hers.

What I learned outside the classroom this year in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was that as much as we love stories and writing, we sure do say no to them quite often.

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