After food, shelter and companionship, stories are what we need most. [Phillip Pulman]
Stories come to us in many ways: songs, books, movies, even poetry. Poetry? Yes. Before written language, poetry was an oral tradition, and poets were the storytellers. When poets began writing poems for the page, something to be read rather than heard, poetry lost a great deal of its story-telling power and persuasion. But you can still find thousands of contemporary poems that tell a story relevant to what matters today.
Songs tell stories that matter too and most of them come to us as poetry set to music. Sometimes the music speaks to us in ways that matter as much or more than the lyrics. Every now and then I'll hear a song on the radio or the television that reminds me of where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard that song. Songs can be a key that opens the door to our past. One of my favorites is "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell. Another is "The Times They Are A Changing" by Bob Dylan.
Movies can tell a story better than the book that inspired the movie. Either way, your scrapbook will benefit from having a few words in it about a movie that touched you in a life-changing way. Huckleberry Finn, Pay It Forward, or Dead Poets Society.
Storytelling is the art of compelling us to admire and respect the characters, cheer for their success and identify with their problems. But every effort to escape the jaws of the enemy puts them in greater peril. We become more and more anxious for their safety and frustrated they are repeatedly unable to outwit and overcome an increasingly vicious and powerful enemy. Just when the conflict takes the darkest turn, the heroes snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. We share in their success as if it were our own. And in a good story, it is.
Some people think fiction isn't true and therefore inferior to fact. Yes, stories are made up, so fiction can be just an entertaining way to escape reality. We live in a world with problems that are often beyond our ability to solve. So it can be reassuring to read a story with problems we know will be solved by the hero in the end. Diane Setterfield calls attention to the escapist value of fiction when she tells us to ask ourselves...
"What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don't expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need is the comfort of a story, the soothing safety of fiction."
But people who write books, compose poems, make movies and sing songs seed their imagination with what they see, hear, learn and remember of the real world. So fiction can also be a powerful way to change reality. Storytellers, in other words, use fiction to tell the truth, and that empowers you to find something true about yourself. We live in a world that makes us too busy to look back and see our own lives as stories, too busy to connect the dots of cause and effect and paint our own story with a plot and a point. Stories give us that look back. We become the young hero, the wise old woman, the transformed fool. The story becomes more true than if it had really happened, and that makes fiction psychologically valid, emotionally realistic and loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.
Some stories paint life as fatalistic and hopeless while others fill it with dreams come true. Some emphasize our deep connections with other people while others exaggerate loneliness and individualism. In some stories, people enjoy serendipity while in others they suffer bad luck. Stories can show people living authentic lives, being dishonest with themselves and others, choosing a wise path over a foolish one, or getting stuck in a rut. Fact and fiction dance in every story. Stories bring us face to face with who we are. Stories are connections between what is and what could be—reminders that it's never too late to become who we can be.
Thousands of years ago, people were able to see the stars more clearly than we do now because the night sky wasn't polluted with smog, city lights or tall buildings. And they spent more time sitting around a campfire telling stories and looking up at the night sky. Today, we spend most of our nights watching television, texting friends or playing video games.
I miss the nights when I sat around a campfire telling stories and looking up at the stars. When I was a boy, it was in a forest on a camping trip with my father. When I was a young man, it was in the desert with my motorcycle friends. Forest or desert, the night sky always made me feel as if I could reach up and touch the stars overhead.
This evening, when the day star winks over the horizon, light a campfire, fire up the barbecue or put a handkerchief over a flashlight. Call it your story fire. Look up and see those other story fires. We call them stars, but imagine a planet like ours orbiting the one you are looking at, and somebody like you sitting around their fire looking down at yours.
Open a book to your favorite story. Read it aloud. Set aside what your neighbors might think, and imagine them sitting quietly on their side of the fence, enchanted with your story. Imagine it carrying you, and them, like smoke drifting through the pines, to once upon a time in a land far away.
When you've finished the story and the embers of your fire are glowing softly in the dark, ask yourself: Is this story truer than if it had really happened? Does it tell me how my values and abilities fit into the scheme of things? Does it reveal a path to my hopes and dreams? Could I apply this approach without moving to Mars or having a frontal lobotomy?
Only Pa I Ever Had
My uncle Clem dint walk stooped over like most old folks. Naw, he walked straight up like the handle on that pitch fork he used to toss hay. Made me think the sun was pulling him straight to it like a stalk of corn. Reckon he wasn't weak or bent 'cause he'd worked his farm since he was a boy. Wasn't like Ferns farm 'cause we didn't have a pig named Wilbur or a spider named Charlotte. Wasn't no Old MacDonalds Farm neither. Was my Uncle Clem's farm. One he got from his Pa.
Had hands like a gorilla too. I know 'cause couple a times he took hold a me for doing something stupid. Like when he caught me shooting chickens with my bee bee gun. He was madder than a wet hen. Said, "Otta break that Daisy over yur behind Boy!" Sent me into the woods for a switch. After he whooped me with it, my backside was a bee hind. Felt like hundreds of 'em had stung me good for doing bad. Didn't sleep much that night with my behind on fire and bad feelings for my uncle festering in my head. I put those feelings into words real quiet like so Aunt Clara wouldn't come in my bedroom and make me eat a bar of soap.
Got on the wrong side of my uncle again when he found out Eugene Hixenbaw had stole my knife. My uncle Clem said, "Better find the gumption to put yur face in Eugene's and take it back, Boy."
I knew what he meant by better. Better to face Eugene than my uncle if I didn't get it back. But Eugene was bigger than me, so next day at school, while he was flirting with Suzy by the lunch tables, I snuck over and found my knife in that bag under the seat on his bike. Started to sneak away but something inside me woke up. Something that knew the best way to be on the right side of myself and my uncle was to get on the wrong side of Eugene. So I walked over and waved my knife in his face.
"Ain't right you stole my knife, Eugene."
He grabbed at it, but I pushed him back, then showed him the meanest look I could muster. Suzy frowned, then walked away. Eugene chased after her, yelling, "Was just teasin' him, Suzy. Was gonna give it back."
Eugene felt bad, but not for stealing my knife. I felt good, but not for getting it back. I'd done some growing up that day and knew it was mostly 'cause of my uncle. Fact is, he taught me pretty much everything. How to fish and hunt and work his farm.
Learned things by watching him too. Like where he went when he got that far away look in his eyes. Happened mostly down at the creek fishing for catfish. He'd sit there next to me chewing tobacco, spitting in the creek and yanking his pole if something nibbled his line. Then he'd drift off to somewhere I couldn't go 'cause I wasn't him.
I knew he wasn't looking at the river, but one morning I asked him what he was looking at, hoping he'd tell me where that somewhere was.
He said, "Travelin' in my head, Boy, like dreamin' with yur eyes open."
I'd done some day dreaming myself, but thinking about one thing while looking at something else didn't come naturally. Mostly I just let my eyes take me where my legs couldn't go. Like crossing the Mississippi 'cause I couldn't walk on water. Dreaming with my eyes open was easier after sundown, 'cause staring into the dark didn't take my eyes away from the dreaming.
Didn't do much night dreaming though 'cause most nights Uncle Clem was telling me scary stories. Worst was that Jabberwocky that'd swoop down on you with flames comin' out of its eyes. His stories always gave me the shivers, so I'd scoot up next to him close as stink on a skunk. When he was done scaring the bejeebers out of me, he'd get real quiet, so I knew he was staring into the dark, going places in his head. I'd go someplace in my head too but knew it wasn't where he went. Made me feel like he wasn't with me anymore. Like my real ma and pa.
Had a party when I turned twelve. Was a real hoot nanny. Cake and ice cream. Clara on the fiddle. Clem on the banjo. Everyone drinkin' his Holler Hill moonshine. We called it that 'cause the fire he put in water gave everyone a hankering to holler.
Later that night, Clem got sick so Clara drove him to the hospital in that big yeller pickup he used to drive to town his self. Next morning she came home without him. Made me wonder if he'd gone to that place he went when he'd got that far away look in his eyes.
Him dying gave us a good excuse to have another rip-roaring hoot nanny with folks from all over the county. We memory'd him good then buried him next to his pa's grave on that hill above the pond. Like to think he's guzzling moonshine and dancing with the angels up there in heaven. Don't have no angels down here, though, so I work the farm and hunt and fish by myself.
Couple of nights ago, waiting for something to yank the line on my fishing pole, I imagined my uncle sitting next to me. His hand on my shoulder. Him saying, "Yur the only son I ever had, Jimmy." Me saying, "Yur the only Pa I ever had, Clem." Knew it didn't matter we'd never actually said those things to each other. Knew it didn't matter he'd gone somewhere I couldn't go 'cause now, when I get that far away look in my eyes, I have my own place to go.