Saturday, July 28, 2012
"I got a funny story for you ...."
Often when people tell us thay have a funny story for us, we discover it's not really all that funny, not at all. So maybe, I think, the Steamer will stay inside a bit longer than he planned, hoping that the Storyteller will dress, tire of waiting, head outside and find someone in the lobby to bore with his story. Who knows?
I do know that stories have always been our best way to communicate with one another. I imagine it didn't take the First Users of Words very long to figure out ways to string them together to keep the attention of the First Listeners. Dude, I saw this, like, awesome buffalo-thingy, and I'm all, Dude! That thingy would taste so good! And so I'm like sprinting back here to get some help, when this tiger-thingy ....
And so we quickly discovered the power of stories to persuade, to frighten, to delight, to instruct, and on and on. Religions learned, too: the best stuff is in the stories. (Be honest: Wouldn't you rather read one of the parables than chug through Leviticus?)
My father was a storyteller. My brothers and I heard his tales about his own boyhood back on the farm in Oregon--the horseplay (literal and figurative) with his brothers and neighbor kids. We learned about a game they played on the unwary, a game called Snatch-and-Grab-It, a game involving a blindfold and a cow pie and a kid who would grab for something he'd just seen (pre-blindfold) and then would discover to be something profoundly different ...
When we'd gather out in Oregon for family reunions, Dad and his brothers didn't even have to tell the entire story anymore. Someone would mention just a kid's name, or Snatch-and-Grab-It, and they all would howl like coyotes with cramps. And my delighted brothers and I would laugh along with them ... as if we'd been there ...
Which, of course, is what good stories do--they take us there, wherever "there" may be. They yank us out of our world and plop us into another one--sometimes one that's very like our own or somewhat like it or nothing like it at all.
People tend to favor one type of story over another. I like realistic fiction (stories that take me to places I recognize), but I also like detective fiction. Other people like stories that are familiar in some ways, very unfamiliar in others (Ffity Shades of Grey?)--or drastically different (Hunger Games, The Hobbit).
We tell stories to one another all the time. Joyce comes home from Hiram College; I ask her about her day. She does not just list the things she did. She crafts a story about her day, a story that includes characters, incidents, a story that rises toward a climax, a story that has a message ...
We insist on an arc in our stories--even the "true" ones. That's why some memorists have gotten in trouble in recent years. Maybe the facts of their lives are not so interesting; maybe some lies would enliven things; maybe there is no story in the details; maybe some false conflict would help. If we like the memoirist, we give him or her a pass; if we don't like the writer (see: James Frey), we bury him alive in a casket with the fabled Fanged Oprah.
In the coffee shops where I hang out (I have no life), I hear all sorts of stories--about work, about spouses, about school, about politics ... these days storytellers tend to join their phrases with like and and I'm like or and I'm all; these locutions began with the young, have migrated to the older, though I (too old?) do not use them, except, of course, when I'm telling a story about someone telling a story.
We tell our children stories throughout their childhood--from cautionary tales (Here's what can happen to you if you keep doing that sort of thing!) to inspirational stories to autobiographical tales, modified, of course, for the occasion.
And at the bedsides of our dying loved ones, we ease their going with the balm of story. One night, in the hospital room of my dying father, I was asleep in the chair beside his bed. I awoke to his words. From somewhere a remarkable lucidity had arrived, and he told me a story I'd never heard, about how he'd played the flute in high school, how he'd had to earn the money to buy it. I could not picture that, my dad with a flute. He was a large man, a football and track star. But he did love music and had a glorious tenor voice (at his wedding, our son played a 1940s recording of Dad singing "The Lord's Prayer"). But a flute? I could picture Dad banging a bass drum. But a flute?
Learning something new about my father. On his deathbed.
Our stories do, eventually, end. Death, who must want to hear them, steals them. And among the many losses we feel when parents die is this one: The death of the stories--and not just the ones about themselves. The ones about us too. I loved hearing Dad tell stories about me, about my brothers. He could tell them so well that during the moments of his telling I felt a kind of elevation. I was not my lowly self--but a character. A character who mattered. A character fashioned from my father's breath.