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  • Have you ever retold a Cowbird story? You probably know you can leave breadcrumb remarks about the stories you read. In case you haven't discovered it, the Share this story button gives you the option of registering what amounts to a tweet about any story. The author is told what you wrote along with your audience, should their email settings enable such notifications.

    What does retell mean? The Free Online Dictionary defines it as "To relate or tell again or in a different form." So it's a verb, like you and me. And like us, it spins.

    In defining retelling, the Cowbird Guide says only "When you find a really excellent story, you can choose to retell it. The retold story will be shared with your audience, along with your commentary." It doesn't mention that your comment will be pinned to the story henceforth, and it doesn't indicate that you can retract it if you have second thoughts. (Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't.)

    How should we conduct ourselves in the retell ritual? Do we recap the nub of a story, as the above definition suggests? Say how we like it or what it means in our experience (in the few lines they give us)? If we found the story to be disappointing in some respect, should we bring that up? If its interpretation of events failed to convince us, should we propose an alternative view? Cowbird suggests not, as it only urges us to retell stories we find excellent, not those that trouble us in some way.

    But there are many troubling stories on Cowbird, and authors who are manifestly troubled in manifold ways. You wouldn't, or example, want to type "You can say that again" or "Attaboy!" in response to someone who intimates suicide is their new best friend.

    I'm not saying that a suicide note cannot be an exemplar of creative writing. I'm just using hyperbole to point out that readers can beg to differ about how a writer sees things no matter how expressively he or she uses language. I suspect that retelling and sprouting stories on Cowbird have actually prevented suicides, and I'm prepared to back up my assertion.

    So when you click that Share this story button, put your soul into it, and let the author and her or his readers know you're watching, thinking, feeling, evaluating and reacting, much as when you conceive a story of your own. But that author and that story are your focus and the nub of your engagement, not your own agenda.

    A retell gives you a chance to help an author who is negotiating hostile terrain or looping through emotions to get to a better place. It's also a chance to refract assertions in a direction that the author might not have thought to follow on his or her own. Tilting a story can be a delicate operation, so choose words carefully if you feel impelled to respond obliquely.

    Begging to differ with someone or questioning his or her assumptions runs the risk that we might offend, even if that was not our intention. I think that's why retells are almost always positive, affirming. Personally, I am gratified by almost every retell my stories have received, although a few have guarded words and some are downright cryptic. Still, if some reader feels one of my stories is off the mark in some way, I'd love to know.

    Having said all that, my personal favorite retell is "Thanks dad. You're the best!"
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