Last night, the popular, beloved even, storytelling series Oral Fixation presented another round-up of true life tales. It was the third or fourth time I attended -- this time to see my kickass writer Caroline North. Each one I've witnessed has been engaging. Real people telling their true stories can be quite a remarkable thing. But it hit me sometime between chuckling at the stories of bad decisions and weeping at one man's story of overcoming a devastating childhood, that listening to these stories is a lot like going to church. And as it enters year four, with a bigger space and more name recognition, that might be its greatest flaw.
I quit church when I became an English major. It was somewhere between slogging through Chaucer and deconstructing DeLillo that I began to lose faith in the narratives we use to erect societies. Raised in suburban Dallas, my upbringing placed an emphasis on religion, but my parents were quick to decamp when a church became "too anything." One was too judgmental, another too Pentecostal, another too "mega-churchy." Without a consistent message or dependable community, I learned early that religion was flawed.
But church was the part of religion that always made the most sense -- the community, the shared experience, the life lessons. I just couldn't reconcile the narrative arc that goes: man is irreparably flawed, man acknowledges flawed condition, man seeks help, man pursues better life. (America.)
There had to be more to it than that. Life is more convoluted, and not all stories have happy endings. Which is often why European stories make more sense. The journey often ends with the train wreck; the rubble doesn't always lead to a Pilgrim's Progress. At Oral Fixation, the stories nearly always lead to breakthrough conclusions about life or chronicle huge uphill motion on the path to self-fulfillment. Certainly, these stories are worthwhile, and the cathartic moments are often meaningful, but they grow redundant and quickly thereafter, trite.
Perhaps you're not meant to attend numerous editions of Oral Fixation. Or maybe I just happened to attend the ones that focus on turning points, the "come to Jesus" moments. Or maybe the storytellers all had the same creative writing professor I did, who said, "Start with the conflict and work toward a resolution." But to me, the stories, although affecting, are becoming one-note. And the nights of stacking these problem-conflict-revelation-change stories back-to-back is not only formulaic, it emphasizes structure and sacrifices the prose.
Surely, there are stories worth telling that don't have revelatory endings. Then again, historically oral storytelling is related to instructive narrative. But as Oral Fixation continues to grow, with bigger audiences and multiple performances, I suppose I just want something a bit more varied from the series, something that pulls me back even when I don't know someone in the "cast." Whether it be entertainment for entertainment's sake; or stories that allow for a more realistic approach to life or stories that are worth listening to for the quality of the writing, the clever turn of phrase, the symbolism. Lack of submission? Maybe. Lack of variety in editing? Probably. But the longer it's around, the more necessary diversity in both the story structure, the content and the storytellers will be. Unless, that is, Oral Fixation relies on the storytellers' friends and family to buy the $25 tickets every performance.
Submissions for the series next evening, "Out of the Box" are due at 5 p.m. Friday. More information at Oralfixationshow.com.