If you have been around the Internet for a spell, you may have noticed a word in use that is previously unknown to you: sonder. This word, which is actually not a word according to Webster’s Dictionary, is an Internet-fueled phenomenon that gained traction because of its appeal and relativity to some Internet dweller’s lives. Sonder is a noun, the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
When I discovered this “word” on a random corner of the Internet, it resonated deeply with me. The feeling that I had was evidently felt by others, this sonder-filled moment of looking around and seeing that the world is not about you, not even a little bit. This feeling of placing yourself squarely in the shoes of another, to empathize with their story that you are not a part of, brings humility and awareness to all of us if we would just listen.
Which brings me to my next project as a writer: Sonder Stories
Experiencing sonder is a humbling moment in which we are yanked out of our realities and placed into a space where someone else is the focus. Readers experience this most often, and usually with fictional characters. I am a proponent of people reading non-fiction for this exact reason: real people have such complex lives that we never get to experience. People have different viewpoints and realities and moments that are lived with pain or pleasure, honesty or dishonesty, happiness or grief…and they are so important to hear. And I want to tell them.
Stories are how we learn about how others tackle issues and overcome obstacles. But some stories have horrible endings because someone did something wrong. These type of stories are normally woven together as fables and do not show real situations with real effects on real people. Some stories have amazing endings because someone did something right. And these type of stories are normally dramatized and made into heroics.
What about the real stories?
This type of project is not new. Humans of New York does it with pictures, Chicken Soup for the _______ Soul does it with collections of relatable submissions by everyday people, and Studs Terkel did it with oral collections of Americans’ lives in his time. What I want Sonder Stories to do is tell stories of another’s life, with honesty and hopefully an enlightment of some kind. I want Sonder Stories to evoke empathy or learning, understanding or acceptance, to bring the human experience closer.
Here are my guidelines:
- The interviewee will be prompted to verbally tell me a story. They can begin wherever they wish. Through normal conversation, I will ask the interviewee questions and give them a chance to round out the story. I will ask uncomfortable questions.
- Then I will write the story. I will hold true to the substance of the verbal tale, but I will write it in my style from a third person point of view. The interviewee has a chance to read the story before I publish it, and they are welcome to give me feedback, but unless I get a fact blatantly wrong, I am not obligated to change the story.
- These stories will all be true as I am told. I trust that the interviewee understands the essence of the project and acknowledges that if they wished to tell a fictional story, they can write it themselves. The onus of truth is on the interviewee.
- The interviewee may remain anonymous if they wish. Some stories require anonymity. I will tell no one of the anonymous identities.
- The stories can be big or they can be small. Sometimes the smallest story can evoke the greatest relatability.
If you wish to have your story told, contact me. I prefer to conduct the interview in person but I am not opposed to Skype. Body language is important in getting a story right. I already have a few people lined up as interviewees and I am excited to begin this chapter of my writing!
Here is an example of a Sonder Story I have written: