In the original context of “The Overstory,” this sentence applies to a young man — a teenager, actually — who tumbles into the little-known language of coding and programming in the nascent days of computing. The boy is the awkward son of Indian immigrants who are desperate to find their place in America. He doesn’t seem to fit anywhere (a generation later, according to the story, he would have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or autism) until his father brings home the basic components of a primitive computer. From there, the boy’s entire world is one of discovery and creation as he wanders in a wonderland his contemporaries can’t imagine. (As you can imagine, not everything works out for the best.)

The specific sentence is in a rich paragraph about the boy’s continued love for “old-school reading.” When he finally comes across that “story he’s waiting for … it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.” That seems the ultimate testament to the reach and power of stories that, no matter when they are told and what they are about in the moment, are timeless and universal.

 

But the sentence had another meaning for me — one that speaks as much to storytellers as to the stories they tell. Many young journalists I know grow impatient with their jobs a few years into their careers. They find themselves chasing pay with corporate freelance work or chasing quick posts in their newsrooms. They long for the big stories — those vague, elusive pieces that they are sure they are destined to write if only they had time, support, resources.

I was no different. But I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who believed in me and kept me going even when I didn’t much want to. I also had bills to pay, which I’ve always found a strong motivator.  So I hung in, filing all those dailies — non-news from the planning commission, frothy features from the weekend festival, obits and weather stories and labor strikes. And eventually I was doing the stories I had been waiting for, long before I even knew what they were. Or maybe they had been waiting for me…

The lesson, if there is one? Every story we do is practice for the next story and the next. Until we do those stories, we won’t be ready for our story when it finally comes along. Framed in keeping with the theme of “The Overstory,” the path ahead can be curved and dark and unknowable, but if you don’t keep walking, you’ll never get anywhere.

 

PS: I was reluctant to wade into “The Overstory” even though it was recommended by several people I trust. I’ve struggled with some of Powers’ work in the past. He takes me to intellectual places I can’t always follow, and much as I like to learn and explore, I don’t like to feel completely lost or stupid. But I couldn’t be more glad I challenged myself. It is like nothing I’ve ever read (a rare thing) and makes me want to keep walking, walking, walking through the pages even though I have no idea where I’ll end up.

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