One day last year, a man from Bangalore, India — a place of both high-tech riches and grinding poverty — was overtaken by a nagging question: How do the beggars in this city of eight million spend their nights? What must it be like? He decided to find out.
The next morning he took a bed sheet to the office. At lunchtime he pinged his friends that he was going to pull an all-nighter (to explain his absence). He worked till 11pm. Then he gathered up his sheet and headed out. He carried nothing but a single piece of ID, so if a policeman ended up investigating his grisly end, “at least he’d know who I am.” He found a very public spot – a busy downtown intersection anchored by the Sony World store — and bedded down beside the road. His senses were firing. He could hear cars and motorcycles roaring past. “It scared the shit out of me that one of them might run me over.” He closed his eyes and tried to drift off. He could hear people talking. He pulled the sheet over his head. Eventually, he surfed his worries — would he be robbed? Arrested? Run over? — into an uneasy sleep.
At 2am he was snapped wide awake by voices right next to him. He braced himself for something awful. Turned out it was two guys taking out the trash from the KFC. He slept again, a little. At dawn he pulled his bones off the sidewalk and went back to the office. But as he resumed his normal existence, he did so with a new bit of self-knowledge:
If I lose every single thing in my life, I will still survive.
People clearly do; they survive with nothing. He came away from his night-in-the-ruts with a renewed respect for such people. Also a sharpened commitment to avoid becoming one of them, if he could help it.
And he came away with something else: a story. A story that connected with a lot of people when he posted it on Slate’s community forum Quora not long ago. (I haven’t identified this man because he didn’t identify himself.)
“Live life for the story,” counsels Margot Leitman, the improv actor and author of the storytelling book Long Story Short. Imagine you have a kind of duty, not just to others but to yourself, to live in a storyworthy way. Imagine it’s your job to return from the hunt not just with meat but with the tale of what you encountered out there while the others were home dutifully holding the fort. As if the stories were another kind of meat you were providing. Wouldn’t that change how you constructed that day? The kinds of decisions you made? Not to mention how carefully you paid attention out there, knowing that the quality of the story would depend on how many details you remembered?
“I have yet to hear a great story about a person going to work, coming home and eating dinner in front of the DVR — yet that is how so many of us spend our days,” Leitman says.
“Usually I find the best stories are when a person creates a challenge for him or herself that is deeply personal.”
This was the impetus for the Big Day project, or at least part of it: to create a reason to undertake personal challenges on a semi-regular basis.
I used to “live life for the story.” It was my job. I was, for the most part, an experiential journalist. This involved wacky adventures and voluntary mild (sometimes not so mild) discomfort in the service of some idea. It also demanded the kind of risk that’s hard to justify once you have kids. So gradually, life got more routine and domestic. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It’s called growing up.
But that course-correction had an unanticipated consequence. I realized I wasn’t telling very good stories anymore. Partly because I wasn’t living as storyworthy a life, and partly because the storytelling muscle was weakening from disuse. Without a reason to go out and put ourselves in a storyworthy position of vulnerability, we tend not to do that — especially as we grow older.
My photographer friend Jeff Harris figured this out way earlier than I did.
On January 1st of 1999, Jeff got a cool idea. It was the first day of the last year of the 20th century. He decided to capture the moment, so his grandkids forty or fifty years down the road could see what daily life was like in the shadow of Y2K, back when Grandpa was a young man. Jeff decided to snap a picture every day for a year, and put himself in it — a “selfie” before “selfie” was a word, or a thing.
Jeff did this for a year. He could stop now, by the terms of his own deal. But he found he didn’t want to. Because his project had taken on a dimension he hadn’t expected. It was changing the way he lived.
Each photo bore the burden of telling the story of the day. That meant each day had to be about something. So even if Jeff didn’t feel like doing anything more ambitious than eating bugles in his pajamas, the project forced him to get off his duff and go make something happen, something storyworthy. Sometimes it involved a deeply personal challenge; more often it didn’t. But inevitably, he did some new thing. He could always say of a day, at the end of it, that he had lived it deliberately.
Again, neither Jeff’s experiment nor mine is about taking wild risks. It’s not about sleeping on the street in downtown Bangalore, or in the closest forest, then returning to the office a changed man or woman. (Although it could be.)
It’s about deciding to live so that there’s something worth recording.