Once upon a time there was a young girl who wandered in search of a very specific story. She looked in bookstores and couldn’t find it. She walked through library stacks but never found it. Finally, she went to the storyteller himself. He was sitting in a park, waiting for her. He seemed eager to help. But when she asked, he said he had never heard such a story.
"But you wrote it!" said the girl. "It had a grandfather and a granddaughter who were fishing on a lake in a blue boat."
"That doesn’t sound like any of the stories I’ve ever written," the storyteller said.
So the storyteller ruffled through a stack of his hundreds of stories. As he flipped through, pictures of pink and orange and blue and red people streamed by. Some looked like monsters. Others grimaced like mad clowns. But they all — every one of them — looked like they were having a fine time indeed.
"Stop! That’s it!" the girl yelled. "That’s the one."
It was her story all right. But there was no grandfather, no granddaughter. There was no lake, no fishing, and no blue boat. The storyteller and the girl laughed at the strangeness of it — but really, these things aren’t all that uncommon, are they?
At least that’s how the storyteller tells it. Brian Andreas remembers this scene occurring one summer at an arts festival in Baltimore over a decade ago, but many people who visit the workshop of the storyteller and artist in Decorah, Iowa have this same kind of encounter. They are fans looking for a specific story that has touched them. But they get their facts wrong. The details are all off. What they have done is imprint their own lives on his stories.
In 1993, Andreas created a collaborative art company in Decorah, Iowa to produce a line of contemporary craft products based on these highly adaptable stories. He called it the Story People. The heart of his business remains the stories themselves, which have been published in six slim, paperback volumes, but the Story People produces a multi-million-dollar line of art products that includes furniture, sculpture, and prints populated by strange and otherworldly creatures that are rearing their heads at almost two dozen galleries across Minnesota.
Stories are everywhere. Increasingly, they flood consumer culture in the form of advertisements presented in narrative form. Corporations and organizations are tapping into the power of story to transform lives, or at least to embed themselves in your mind. And though he knows he has as much to gain as anyone else from the entrepreneurial use of story, Brian Andreas finds something wrong with the way corporations harness the elements of story to sell us more stuff.
"It’s like the sorcerer’s apprentice," Andreas said. "They don’t really know what they are playing with."
But that is exactly what Andreas has done. He sells these stories in the form of prints, or stamped on sculptures made of recycled barn wood, to a growing base of collectors of American craft art, and to a cult-like following of fans who appreciate his view of life as a string of funny and odd moments. Others gravitate to the illustrations, which seem not a rendering of the stories, but an extension of them.
"Brian has this way of writing that connects to the soul of people," said Matthew Johnson, an artist and friend of Andreas who has worked in the Story People sculpture studio for 14 years. "His stories are open enough to touch anyone who reads them."
At its basest, what Brian Andreas does is the same feat of alchemical wordsmithing that card companies have been trying to accomplish for decades. He taps into what ties us to each other in fewer words than it takes to introduce two friends. But the product that emerges from that connection is infinitely less cheesy.
Technically speaking, what Andreas writes are not stories, at least not in the classical sense. They rarely feature conflicts — unless you consider trying to get an old man off a couch major drama. At roughly 30 words or less, they are too short to be a short story, or even flash fiction or nanofiction. They present anecdotes from Andreas’s life cast in the warm glow of his writing voice, which is wise and conversational, like an old friend passing time on a front porch swing. If they are anything to be pinned down, they are prose poems — slightly irreverent, deceptively wise, and impish at their core.