When something in life begins, happens, and ends – a project, a joke, a relationship, or perhaps something as simply as the sun’s movement bookending a day – that event becomes a story. A life story. These little narratives of human experience are extraordinary because they are valuable, meaningful currency if we share them. It seems like it wouldn’t be that difficult to do since we all have them; the existence of the arts and humanities proves this. I fancy myself as a sort of journalist for the lives I brush against every day because I feel compelled to report the extraordinary stories we can learn from everybody with this simple inquiry:
“What’s your life story?”
My brain is like a tape recorder; I ask that and click Record. Usually this question gets a chuckle, or a joke, but eventually the shock of such a vague but personal question wears off and they see I’m actually kind of serious: I ask to get them talking about things that matter to them. (And most people welcome that!)
I still have that journalistic layer behind trying to make extraordinary conversation, though: I still want the story. I want to give it life, and share it, and use it to discuss things. In my photo class, we learned early on that good photographs require politics – a context, a time and space – to effectively mean something. In a similar way, stories need to be situated in a time and space, too, to be meaningful. The story alone isn’t the agent here: it’s the reader and the listener who ultimately do something with it and by asking for a life story, I bring stories into a time and space – the here and now.
Sometimes the stories I uncover are seeing the outside of their authors’ heads for the first time: it’s the first time they have the opportunity for a context, for meaning, for comment, and for reflection. As a small-scale journalist, concentrating in conversational life stories, I believe I am doing humanity a service by documenting and sharing the ordinary extraordinary – by showing people how their lives can be a artistic when framed.
During a talk given by photographer Byron Wolfe I attended for my photo class, one line he delivered towards the beginning of his lecture stuck with me throughout the entire presentation and long afterwards. He wondered what the “length of the gaze” is, or how long it takes to really look at something. Obviously, photographs themselves take hours or so to make – whether just because one waits for the perfect moment to capture an image, or the processing and editing take forever – but after they’re made, they’re within time and space: where a photo slowly reveals meaning to each of its viewers, who contextualize it with their own perspective. This is what I do when I’m presented with a story: I gaze, within my time and space, and hope to report what I find.
So I wonder, too: How long do I “gaze” at something? Why do I find most, if not all, life stories extraordinary when everyone has them? One quotation offers an answer:
Understanding Jazz isn’t quick. It’s like a quote Duke Ellington told a listener who said she didn’t get his music. “I’ve been working on this for 20 years, why should you expect to get it in five minutes?” I like that, because it does take time to receive all that’s being given in a Jazz context.
Esperanza Spalding via EBONY
It takes time to receive all that’s being given in any context. “Being in the moment” is sure helpful for understanding things that happen in life, but life also deserves some reflection because we are, at the very least, a sum of our exclusively human memories and experiences. The length of a gaze – the length of a self-reflection – the length of a life story – are important to consider for this reason, and it’s up to the framers – the artist, the author, the audience – to decide how long to look.
A person lives. Things go on. An artist takes an interest – it might be they who lived this particular story, or it might be someone else they know. They investigate the circumstances and record the story in whatever medium they use to project their perspective – their time-and-space. Audience members experience the product in their time-and-space. Thus, we have the arts and humanities: studying famous life stories that have found relevance throughout different times-and-spaces.
I want to add to that conversation. I want to bring my perspective to the table, but with my little spin: that we’re extraordinary just for living out our life stories. Gazing and reporting never ceases to amuse me. Precisely this is the reason why I live and write Let’s Be Extraordinary: I love it. I believe life stories deserve to be artistically framed, and if I can lend my time-and-space to the conversation, then by all means I will. Up to now, LBE has been mostly my own life stories because – as I’ve discovered – I’m unique in my constant self-reflection (maybe it’s an introvert thing?), but with access to my notebook, one would see evidence of other stories. I’m framing, I’m gazing, and I’m hoping to do my collected stories a justice here soon.
all photos taken by me.