Issue Twenty-Two - Summer 2013

The Currency of Human Consciousness

By Jeremiah O’Hagan
Co-Editor for Prose

The first time I met Brian Doyle, he said, “To catch and tell stories: it’s so holy.” I’d heard people call stories many things, but I’d never heard someone call them holy. Never divine or near God.

We often relegate stories to the realm of the made up, the imagination, the stuff kids do. Stories are nice, and they are for people who have leisure time. They are not for adults who are mad to achieve. Yet, Doyle argued not only for the stories themselves, but explicitly for the craft of telling them.

Doyle isn’t the first person to praise stories’ power. Tim O’Brien wrote, in The Things They Carried, “Stories can save us.” Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker, said in “1 + 1 = 3,” a video interview for The Atlantic online, “It might be that what I’m engaged in in a historical pursuit is the thinly, or perhaps thickly, disguised waking of the dead … We have to keep the wolf from the door. We tell stories to sustain ourselves. We all think an exception is going to be made in our case, and we’re going to live forever. Being human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be. Story is there to just remind us that it’s just OK.”

Stories aren’t only acts of desperation and salvation, though. They are acts of love, compassion, empathy, wonder, confusion, memory, anticipation, revenge and straight-up wordlessness. They are how we make sense of things for which single words haven’t yet been invented. Stories are acts of discovery, too. In its whorls of bark and stars and orbits, its bends of grass and brooks, the universe is also spinning tales. Through science and math, we read them. History: more stories. Literature: stories. Language: our miracle.

Some literary journals have a theme for each issue. SHARK REEF doesn’t. Editor Lorna Reese just wants good writing. As we combed these latest submissions though, and eventually picked six, a theme of sorts appeared. Each of us had been looking simply for good stories. The pieces that drew our attention weren’t moral, exactly, or didactic or fantastical. They weren’t even more fiction than non-, or vice versa. They were tales of average humans, engaged in average activities, experiencing extra-ordinary moments. Most days, that is enough. Most days, that’s all any of us wish for — some tiny bit of the miraculous to wedge itself into our lives.

About the poetry selections, guest editor Tom Aslin wrote, “Stanley Kunitz believed in writing a poetry that approached a kind of transparency. Richard Hugo believed all good poets were moral poets, though he was quick to add that he was not speaking about conventional morality. Both thoughts are useful when reading and discussing the poems selected for this issue. Language in these poems is handled with some care, with a nod toward accuracy of statement without sidestepping or ignoring image, rhythm, or metaphor. These are poems that can be read and enjoyed without searching in vain through obscure or arcane text.”

“Some of our best poetry,” Aslin added, “is easily approachable.”

As are our best stories.

Stories are all I’ve known, from my first memory of sitting on my grandpa’s knee with a book in my lap to this moment right now. I like Doyle’s choice of words. “To catch and tell.” Not to make or invent or create, but to catch. To receive something passed to us. And then to return it, with a lasting bit of ourselves tucked inside. Call it an offering, sacrifice, or resurrection. A revelation. No matter which, it’s holy.

Stories are the currency of human consciousness. As long as we keep telling them, we’ll keep evolving. As long as we keep listening, we’ll keep learning. As long as we keep learning, we’ll keep experiencing small miracles, forever and ever, amen.

Copyright O’Hagan 2013