The Storytellers

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz

Storyteller - Statue by Chanel and Tiffany & Co
Photo Credit: Sarah-Rose

In mid-2010, the world got to meet a charismatic man who told a compelling story of a thwarted crime. He was described by the Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capeheart as “one of the strongest people we’ve seen for a while.”

In 2012, another compelling storyteller came to the nation’s attention with her animated tale of realization and escape set against the backdrop of Easter Sunday.

Now in the spring of 2013 the unbelievable tale of man who became a hero by being in the right place at the right time, at first reluctant and then accepting of his role as rescuer. Think Luke Skywalker. Think Harry Potter. Think Charles Ramsey, the man who painted a picture with words that was so complete and well-rendered, we could imagine every detail, from him ripping the door off his neighbor’s house to the Big Mac he held in one hand.

As I write this, the interest in Ramsey is fading but details of the true-life house of horrors are still coming out. But for a few days, he was an intrinsic part of the story. People knew his name. People bothered to learn his name, not to mock him but to hail him as a hero.

I hail Charles Ramsey not only as a hero to the women he helped to free but also for his ability to tell a story. He has the same talent as the other two people I alluded to: he can tell a vivid story in the time in a single news segment. Ramsey may not become an Internet sensation but the other two storytellers did: Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson. People might not remember who wrote The Great Gatsby but when you say one of these storytellers’ names, you might just be quoted some of the story in return.

One of the talents we’re expected to develop as writers is brevity, preferably compelling brevity. Novelists need to perfect their “elevator pitch” and tell what a 70,000 word novel is all about in fifteen seconds. We might kvetch about it but these three people have shown us not only that it can be done but that it can be done spontaneously in front of a TV camera.

With Dodson, Brown, and Ramsey controversy arose about whether the audience was mocking or revering them. Of course they had their detractors but, for the most part, I think their fame came not because of their class or the color of their skin but because all three told interesting stories in interesting ways.

All three followed basic plot structure: set-up, climax, and resolution. All three used colorful and interesting language. Language relevant to the situation and familiar to those involved. Language that cut straight to the story instead of embellishing beyond the bounds of tight storytelling. Language that’s modern and popular, reflecting our time and each respective setting.

I remember the first time I heard each tell his or her story. With Dodson, I pictured the story he told (of a man climbing through Dodson’s sister’s bedroom window and Dodson chasing away the “bedroom intruder”). I loved not only his enthusiasm and clear-cut language but also his direct address to the audience, particularly to the Bedroom Intruder himself, something storytellers have done since the first “hearken well, dear listener” or variant thereof. Dodson capitalized on his fame with T-shirts and music and has managed to keep his name in headlines ever since he first came to our attention. He’s interesting. He manipulates the media well. He only recently renounced his alleged homosexuality on May 2 and he has an arrest record so there is still a chance he could become the Oscar Wilde of twenty-first-century America.

When I first heard Sweet Brown tell her story of escaping a fire, I was drawn closer by her delivery (she claimed to have bronchitis but in subsequent interviews, I find her voice as melodically rasping as in her initial interview). She told her story with a particular cadence, her voice almost evangelical as she gained speed to convey a sense of urgency. In twenty seconds, she became a sensation. Not because of her clothing (which she said embarrassed her, in retrospect) or her son pacing behind her but because she told a complete story—in her own way, with her own words—in twenty seconds. And she even had time for a punchline. In her Tosh.0 “web redemption,” she played a version of herself who was a fire safety awareness superhero dumping buckets of water on careless fire-starters and saying her unintended catchphrase. Stephen King probably wishes he could do the same.

And then there’s Charles Ramsey. Like Dodson, he was a hero in the story he told. Like Brown, he took charge of a dangerous situation. Like both, he became famous for the story he told as well as for the telling itself.

I first heard Ramsey tell his story the morning of May 6 while I was driving and listening to Howard Stern. By that that point in the day I had read the headlines and knew there was a “hero neighbor” but I hadn’t heard him tell his story. I found his to be the most compelling of the three stories I mention here. Not because of its subject matter—which is on a whole different level from Dodson and Brown’s stories—but because he struck me as a true narrator rather than an anecdotist. Maybe it was because of the coincidence that The Great Gatsby was soon to be released in theaters but it felt very “Nick Carraway” to me—a first person outsider-narrator telling a portion of someone else’s epic story. There’s no doubt of his importance in the tale but if/when a movie might be made, the camera could be placed on either side of the door for this scene but wouldn’t be on the outside for the bulk of the film.

Ramsey followed the first rule of writing: show, don’t tell. His story was tight, factual, and direct, yet colorful and detailed. We watched and listened and while we might be left baffled and full of questions about what happened in that house, we are very clear on what happened on the outside of the house right before those concurrent 911 calls were placed. His narrative was colorful in his telling yet he maintained a tone in keeping with the solemnity and anxiety the story itself produced. When interviewed later by Anderson Cooper, I found Ramsey even more interesting as he fleshed out more details of the story and talked, reluctantly, about himself. Like Brown, he finished his original story with a decidedly final—and memorable—line.

Dodson came in (deus ex machina) at the tail end of the story he told, one of three major characters. Without him, we would still have heard the news report about a break-in and attempted rape, maybe with Dodson’s sister Kelly telling the entire story (she could probably give her brother a run for his money, based on the original news report).

Brown’s story plays on the universality that a simple incident could have become disaster and that it happened to anyone, including us. We identify with her, project ourselves onto her, and feel her relief with the story’s safe ending. We want to buy her a cold pop (and someone did, buying her a twelve-pack of RC soon after the story broke because he was so moved by her interview).

Ramsey had to be in that place, at that time, responding as he did (mail misdelivered, on suspension from his job, just back from McDonald’s). His is a “perfect storm” chapter of a larger story but that chapter and the story as a whole must include Ramsey exactly as he is, doing just what he did or else it fails. The actor cast in his role would probably have a credit like “with Guy O’Somebody as Charles Ramsey” and a name actor in the pivotal supporting role. I’m hoping for Don Cheadle.

So as to the cultural criticism that news media or the public are contributing to some kind of stereotype of class or race with the instant and ongoing popularity of Dodson, Brown, and Ramsey, we writers know the truth: people like a good story but people love a great story well-told and, by extension, the storyteller.

The fondness I proclaim for all three of these people is genuine. I would love to have dinner with any of them, just to hear more of the stories they must have to tell. When even our “reality TV” is obviously scripted, we crave people who tell real stories with real passion, especially when they can do it in the time it would take you to travel in an elevator with them and crack open a couple cans of cold pop.


Email: baker[at]

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