A Small Fiction | 05

Don’t be so immersed in your Important Work that you neglect the side of you that wants a good story.

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Episode Transcript

This is The Good List — I’m Tsh Oxenreider.

This is a work of art.

In my first semester of college freshman year, I took my first of many English classes — I somehow managed to register for a highly-sought-after upper-level seminar class (in fact, the professor was astonished little 17-year-old me was supposed to be there; he definitely tried to persuade me that there was some mistake, but I stood my ground and kept my coveted spot. I have no idea either how I got in that class). I don’t remember much about that class, except for one thing I heard Dr. Trimble say that I never before heard: he said, “We humans learn best through storytelling, and that’s why storytelling is important.” 

I was bright-eyed and full of optimism, so I didn’t like that statement at first. Learn? C’mon, stop trying to make the pure enjoyment of a good story into something educational or academic. We love a good story as an end in itself — we just like stories, we’ve been telling them since literal recorded history and signs point to even before then, it’s like we were hard-wired to love stories, really, it’s more like we were made for stories, we experience life as a story, we make sense and unscramble life’s greatest quandaries through stories ….Oh. …Okay, yeah, I guess we do learn best through stories.

The human race tells stories and listens to stories for entertainment, yes, but it also is THE number one way we learn. It’s as though we’re hard-wired for it. It’s why we remember the illustration the priest uses in the Sunday sermon long after the theological points are made, why we connect with certain beloved teachers more than others (because they become part of our own story), and even why we rewatch our favorite movies and TV shows — we’re learning, whether we choose to recognize it. It’s why we’re absolutely captivated when someone’s telling a good story, whether we’re watching a good stand-up comedian or listening to a good friend over dinner re-tell something hilarious that happened at work that day. It’s why our beloved stories from our childhood, be they books or movies, stay with us long into adulthood.

To be honest, our captivation with storytelling is why I’m talking to you about this right now — you may have already noticed that I’ve started each episode of this podcast with a little story. I love it when people do this, so I wanna do it here on The Good List. Let’s just jump in with a good quick storytime, even if it’s 30 seconds long, not all the mumbo-jumbo about where to follow someone on Twitter or why you should leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts. That should come at the end, after the good stuff.

So: we love stories, and our brain looks for them all throughout our day. We hang on to our favorite stories for life. And yes, I’m a HUGE proponent of lifelong learning by way of books (you’ll hear that more and more, if you choose to be a loyal Good List listener here), but it’s also good to be on the lookout for good stories here and there throughout the day.

We all know social media can be a dumpster fire — I don’t need to tell you that, nor do I want to sully the beauty of this podcast with a rant about examples of why this is true. But there’s a really great side to social media that we so often forget whenever we focus on the ugly side of it — there’s some people out there doing really great work with these otherwise humble approaches to global communication. And there’s a certain Twitter account that’s one of my favorite follows that I want to tell you about. In fact, it’s so great, the creator of the account wrote and published a book based on the account. And it’s entirely about storytelling. 

The account is called ‘a small fiction,’ and it’s since evolved to both a separate website and a book that I keep on my nightstand and love. This account is by a young guy named James Mark Miller, and he’s leaned into Twitter’s character-count limitation to write micro-fiction that’s complete, from beginning to end, in one tweet. You already know my love for keeping things small, from episode 1, and for short stories, from episode 2. Well, this takes things to a whole new level. And entire story in 280 characters. And we’re not talking little one-off cutesy plot points. We’re talking stories that’ll make you think the rest of your day. Stories that Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, have turned into standalone comic strips. Stories about which writer Hank Green has said, “Goosebumps, over and over and over again. Savor these stories when they fill your heart, when they make you think, and when they creep you out. James and Jefferson have made some really good art here” (Jefferson is James’ illustrator).

Really good art. I agree, and it’s why A Small Fiction makes my Good List.

I’ll tell specifically you why I love it so much, and why I think you should too, after this short break. Be right back.

Welcome back.

Okay… So what makes A Small Fiction good, and how is it different than some other entertaining Twitter account? Well, like I said, it’s an entire story in 280 characters — that alone is a feat. But like Hank Green says, these aren’t just one-off, simpleton stories. These are stories that make you think, give you goosebumps, and even tear up with its simple beauty. These are entire stories you could read in literally ten seconds of less — and think of how often you have little blips of ten seconds throughout your day. There’s tons of them, all day long! Think of what your day would be like if you read a micro-story in those 10-second blips instead of scrolling Instagram or playing the latest addictive smartphone game.

I’ll give you an example of some of my favorite stories, and then I’ll tell you why I like them so much — I’ll tell you now, in advance, that they’re better read with your eyes than listened to with your ears, so keep that in mind:

She hated her time machine.

All it ever did was create paradoxes, which annoyed her. She wished she had never built it.

She knew she could go back and prevent herself from building it, of course.

But that annoyed her the most.

///

“How’s the time machine? Sightseeing in the distant past?”

“No. I mostly just take short hops back.”

“What? Why?”

“To re-do conversations I mess up. It can take a lot of tries.”

“That’s… kinda weird.”

“Oh. Ha, just kidding. Well, I’d better be going. Talk to you soon, OK?”

///

Human wireless chargers were a big hit.

People loved them. The need to sleep was gone!

But soon they found them installed mostly behind cash registers. Under office chairs.

And they realized the dreams were gone, too.

///

“How can I be remembered?” he said.

“Be difficult to forget,” the Oracle said.

“How? Do I create art? Be famous? Be powerful?”

“Be kind.”

///

People didn’t hire skywriters much, anymore.

Sometimes he flew anyway, on clear days, to write “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” in the sky.

Just on the off chance the right person looked up.

///

“Do you have a magic spell to return someone to life?” she said.

“No,” the witch said, “I’m sorry.”

“Oh.”

“Why don’t you tell me about them?”

“Will that bring them back?”

“For us. For a little while. Stories are a different kind of magic.”

///

“Let me tell you a story,” his grandma said.

“This isn’t another cautionary tale, is it?” he said.

“They all are, if you tell them right.”

///

There’s a recurring theme of time machines in a number of them, and they’re a mix of genres: horror, humor, nostalgic, memoir, fantasy. That’s one of the reasons I like them, because these stories cover plots I wouldn’t always seek out. They’re also not greeting cards — they’re not here to wrap things up in a nice, pretty bow; in fact, one reason they’re so great is because of the cliffhangers they leave you on. They’re supposed to make you think, not always feel warm and fuzzy inside (which, aside, is one of my favorite qualities in good art: it doesn’t seek out at all costs to make you feel warm and fuzzy; it’d rather make you think). And as both a writer and a reader and a teacher of writing, I appreciate that they’re well-written (even if they’re …tweets). I often tell my English students that writing short is harder than writing long, and this has proven true in my personal experience. Miller does a lot with just a few words, and it’s my favorite when a writer doesn’t mess around with filler fluff. The best ones get to the point.

Now, like I said a minute ago, think of all the 10-second blips you could fill by reading one of Miller’s micro-stories instead of scrolling social media — well, that goes for Twitter, too, but I actually recommend buying his book. One, it’s just good to support good art, and I personally do that whenever I can (I also support him on Patreon, which you can do, too), but his little book is a great companion for nightstand, or your purse or car, or just to lay out somewhere so someone can pick it up and read it whenever the mood strikes. You can open it anywhere and read a page, then put it down and read another one on another random page. As the subtitle says, it’s “an illustrated collection of little stories.” 

Sometimes we need simple stuff like this in our lives, right? It’s good and right to think about and get involved in the bigger, more consequential stuff like politics, theology, and education. But we need to pair it with little bits of art scattered throughout our days — otherwise, we’ll forget what all that theology and education and politics are for. Don’t be so immersed in your important work that you neglect the side of you that wants a good story. After all, that’s how you learn best, it’s how we all learn best collectively as a culture. A small fiction, while not written to give you direct application on how to live your life, certainly can leave you with a lot to think about. It’s why I think it deserves a spot on the Good List.

Hi Tsh, this is Lisa Ramsey, and I’m calling from Guilderland, New York. My good thing is a work of art. I recently enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. It was read by Tom Hanks, who brought the book to life in an amazing way that only Tom Hanks can do. If anybody is an audiobook listener, they know how important it is that the reader brings something to the book, and I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out reading The Dutch House. Thanks!

As you know, The Good List is a brand-new podcast, and if you like it so far, I’d love you to make it one of your weekly, can’t-miss listens. Each episode is intentionally short, to respect your time, so that it’s a weekly dose of inspiration, encouragement, or motivation. The best way for you to become a loyal listener is to subscribe to the show, so you never miss an episode. The Good List can be found wherever you already listen to your favorite podcasts — Apple, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Google, Alexa, Overcast, Pocket Casts, the list goes on…  Just search in those places for either “the good list” or my name, Tsh Oxenreider, and you should find it. Then click the subscribe button, and you’re good to go. I’ve also got easy subscribe links to many of these places at thegoodlistshow.com. 

So to subscribe, and to find the show notes of this episode, #5, head to thegoodlistshow.com, where I’ve got links to things like the Small Fiction Twitter account and book, and where you can also sign up for my free weekly email, 5 Quick Things; I send those out on Fridays, and where you can also read a full transcript of this episode. 

I’m on twitter @tsh and Instagram @tshoxenreider, that’s Tsh without an I. You can also find more of my in-depth, longer-form writing and connect with me more personally at Books & Crannies, my Substack letter, where also I talk every week with subscribers about anything from faith to travel to good books; it’s a great deal of fun. You can find a link to that as well at thegoodlistshow.com.

And like Lisa, I’d love to feature what’s on your good list here on the show! Call and leave a voicemail at (401) 684-GOOD, which goes straight to voicemail so you won’t have to talk to anyone; or, you can simply record yourself from your phone, stating your name, where you’re from, and what idea, work of art, habit, or thing is making your life just a bit better, and then email the voice file to hi@tshoxenreider.com. Again — every last bit of what I’ve mentioned at the end here is at thegoodlistshow.com, so just head there for everything you need.

Thanks so much to Lisa Ramsey for sharing what’s on her Good List. Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, and thanks, as always, to Caroline TeSelle, as well as my furry intern, Ginny. I’m Tsh Oxenreider — thanks for listening to The Good List.

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