Once, in a short story, I read about a man who could not tell stories. Embarrassed at this lack of social skill, he practiced. Standing in front of a mirror, he rehearsed how to hold his head, his facial expressions, how to use his hands to illustrate the story’s climax, and when to raise or lower his voice. He became a hit at parties, but in the end he rehearsed one story too many. That was the story of witnessing his brother’s accidental death. When it came time to talk to the police, he had the details down too pat.
I’ve always like my stories more spontaneous. My friend Edward’s tale of hitchhiking from South America to the U.S./Mexican border, crossing through several countries, without a passport. What happened when my music teacher literally bumped into Queen Elizabeth while she was emptying used tea leaves into her flower bed at Balmoral Castle. How an acquaintance’s father was killed by cannibals in New Guinea.
We all know what makes a good story. Intrigue. Suspense. A breaking down of barriers. A touch of the exotic. Of course, timing is everything. Some stories should only be told in a cheap diner, over a plate of sizzling French fries, at two in the morning, after a night of partying. Others work better under a big pecan tree, in a circle of aunts, where clicking of knitting needles and ice tinkling in large tea glasses punctuate the details.
I suspect that writers—even young proto-writers—have natural antennae for stories. One of the first lessons we learn is not to interrupt. We might miss something if we did, or worse, the storyteller might be distracted and never come back to finish the tale.
Another thing we become good at is listening to the same story more than once, because we’ve figured out that the same story is never really the same. There’s always once nuisance, whether it be a small detail or the change in tone of voice, that suddenly reveals more about the story behind the story.
When I was about four years old, my father’s job kept him away from home for several days at a time. My mother didn’t like being at home alone with two small children, and she had a cousin, who also travelled in his work. She was quite glad for her cousin to stay in our spare bedroom when he came through town. One day, in the grocery store, my mother was talking about her cousin to a neighbor. I was having a hard time remembering who the cousin was and my mother reminded me he had an alarm clock that made a noise I found funny. “Oh,” I said loudly in the middle of the store, “You mean the man who comes to stay every time Daddy’s out of town.”
That was when I learned that some stories were sacred, or at least private.
Writing quote for the week:
Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.
~Eudora Welty, southern writer