(“Observing National Book Week” by Sleet Brown, ca. 1948. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 001-5199.)

The Middle Distance, 10.27.10: “Storytelling”

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

photo by Sean Cayton

In her masterpiece, The God of Small Things, Indian novelist Arundhati Roy says this about stories: “The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen.”

 

I have told a bunch of stories over the years, about travels and meals, about listening to the radio beneath the wide Texas sky in the middle of the night, about my father the charming traveling salesman, about being a girl in Kentucky, about finding my sister in a dirt pen with a vicious Doberman, about having babies, about life and death and all that lies between. I have always believed, inherently, that stories matter.

I know this is true because of the stories my students tell. In the short five years that I’ve taught older adults in creative nonfiction writing classes, I have been moved and changed by stories of courage and creativity, of ordinary life that shines with extraordinary beauty, of adventure and misadventure — stories that strike right at the place inside ourselves that reminds us what it means to be human.

Some of my students have told stories of travel in foreign lands, of work and adventure in exotic places. Others have stuck closer to home.

Some have described the mechanics of hiring and firing and how their businesses work. A swarthy man in a class of older adults held us all in sway with his story of the trucking company he ran, in particular the story of hiring a tough but reliable, tattooed ex-con to carry cargo across the United States. When Nick talked about trucking, he told us something about this modern world that we hadn’t considered before. Who would have thought it? We were mesmerized.

Another student, a country boy who’d moved to the big city worked in the world of finance, stunned us with his story of the woman he worked for, an investment manager who, long before Bernie Madoff hit the news, fleeced hundreds of modest homeowners and working people, promising them wealth while stealing their life savings and spending it on diamonds and trips to the Bahamas. His grasp of humanity and greed and the hunger for wealth that can twist lives into knots of misery left us wondering: Could we have been seduced by her too?

I had a student who wrote precisely and mechanically; his stories sounded a little like notes from clinical proceedings. Until one day, buried in his stiff prose, we saw a submerged gem: the amazing tale of his mother, in the early 1950s, loading up her car with three children and a nervous aunt, and driving the great circuitous route from central Texas to Canada, then the Pacific Northwest, camping along the way, then down the West Coast to San Diego and all the way back home. She died when he was 16, but gave him this first adventure, when he was a 6-year old in knee pants who thought this was just what mothers did.

My students have written about abuse and illness, losing their spouses, caring for their dying parents, about recovery and faith. They have struggled to give themselves permission to own their stories, to understand that their version of the way it happened is exactly that — their experience, their understanding, their claim to their own lives.

One student came to class and told us she couldn’t write for beans but wanted to leave behind the story of her rural, Midwestern upbringing for her grandchildren. She’d retired from a career teaching physical education and hadn’t spent much time pondering words and paragraphs. Armed with a basic writing assignment and just a few words of advice on how to move a narrative forward, she returned to class the next week with an exquisite memoir, the story of living on an Indiana farm with no electricity, of the corn harvest and the bouncing wagons, of the dark corn crib and the cobs saved to stoke the fire in the cook stove. She didn’t embellish or romanticize. Her prose was as clear and cutting as the Indiana sunlight. We knew, without her telling us so, that she had been forever shaped by hard work and clear-cut tasks, and that wherever she lived this 1940s place was her true home.

Great Stories, says Arundhati Roy, “are as familiar as the house you live in.”

On Saturday, July 30, 2011 Kathryn Eastburn will teach a one-day seminar titled Writing Life Stories: An Introduction to Personal Narrative. You can find more information and register for the class HERE.

Kathryn Eastburn is on vacation and will return next week. This column originally ran on October 29, 2010.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

3 Responses to The Middle Distance, 6/17/11: “Storytelling”

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    Your ability to draw out the wonderful narratives from your class puts you in a class of your own. Stories tell us who we are as well. Putting it down, looking at the print on the page that is YOUR story. What a trip!! Thanks Kathryn

  2. Paula says:

    swarthy,,, good word

  3. Libby says:

    Late to catch up, but thanks so much, again, Kathryn!

News

August 26, 2016 | NPR · The judges say although an immigrant was convicted of using false documents to work, that doesn’t make her guilty of moral turpitude. One judge calls the case a waste of taxpayers’ money.
 

Toronto Pig Save/Screenshot by NPR
August 26, 2016 | NPR · Anita Krajnc is facing charges of criminal mischief because she gave water to pigs bound for the slaughterhouse. If convicted, she could be sentenced to six months in jail or a $5,000 fine.
 

Pat Scola/Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions
August 26, 2016 | NPR · The movie Southside with You is opening in theaters. The film follows Michelle and Barack Obama’s very first date, and shows something we don’t get too see too often in film: black romance.
 

Arts & Life

Pat Scola/Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions
August 26, 2016 | NPR · The movie Southside with You is opening in theaters. The film follows Michelle and Barack Obama’s very first date, and shows something we don’t get too see too often in film: black romance.
 

Humans of the Water
August 26, 2016 | NPR · Photographer Collin Richie and three colleagues have been shooting portraits of people who were impacted by the floods in Louisiana. The images focus on what people were able to save.
 

Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions
August 26, 2016 | NPR · A Chicago couple go on a first-date-that’s-not-a-date in 1989 in Southside With You. Her name is Michelle. His is Barack.
 

Music

Sony Pictures Classics
August 26, 2016 | WBGO+JAZZ.org · Hear three interpretations of the musical icon: on screen, with actor and director Don Cheadle; on the page, with co-biographer Quincy Troupe; and on stage, with trumpeter Keyon Harrold.
 

Courtesy of the artists
August 26, 2016 | WBGO+JAZZ.org · The communication between piano and voice often becomes deeply personal. Two rising stars of their instruments prove as much in duet at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
 

KCRW
August 26, 2016 | KCRW · Watch the boundary-pushing R&B singer perform “What’s Normal Anyway” live in the studio.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab