Storytelling

Birthdays

Birthdays are my favorite. I had one a couple of days ago, but I tend to celebrate the entire month. The only other person I’ve heard of who does that is my aunt Lisa. She may have given me the idea. One year I called her every week for her birthday. I think after three weeks it got kind of old.

This year my wife bought me tickets to see Eddie Izzard. I’m a huge fan of his standup. I’ve been a giddy school girl for two days now, and I don’t think it’s going to subside until several weeks after the show. The show is in June, so Dana has a lot to put up with from now until then.

Birthdays are my favorite in the same manner that storytelling is my favorite. I think I like my birthday in particular because it comes with a good story. Not a lot of people get a good birthday story, so I appreciate mine. Anyone who knows me gets the one-sentence version, but if they ask questions they get the long version. Growing up, I heard the story every year. When I turned 8 I decided that I didn’t mind hearing it every year. I always thought it was lame that I had to hear how I came into the world every time I had a birthday, but then I realized that none of my siblings got story time as an annual gift. I was the lucky one.

Without any further ado, the one sentence version: I was born in the back seat of a station wagon in my neighbor’s yard on Mother’s Day.

87buick

 

This, unfortunately, is not the same wagon, but you get the idea. The first thing I’m introduced to is wood paneling on a car. And, you aren’t going to get through this post without getting the long version. It’s my birthday, it’s my blog. I’ll do what I want.

I am the fourth child of six. My mom had to get the other three kids up, ready for church and over to grandpa and grandma’s before making the 45 minute drive to the hospital. But that’s when she realized that 45 minutes is a lot longer than she and daddy-o had before meeting their brand new bundle of Mother’s Day joy.

Lucky for them (and me), the neighbor’s daughter was visiting with her husband for the holiday. Mom knew that Gail was a midwife assistant. She may have never delivered a baby herself, but she sure knew how.

Dad and mom flew up the driveway, screeching to a halt and laying on the horn. “We need to get her inside! The baby is coming!”

With one look, Gail said, “No time for inside, Kevin. Your baby is being born right here in this terribly dated vehicle of yours.”

And I was. I arrived before the ambulance.

A few days later, my parents called Gail and her husband, Ben, to tell them the good news. “We named him ‘Benjamin’ after you!”

“Well that’s great! I’m honored!” replied Ben. “But my name is ‘Bennet’.”

We kept the station wagon up until I was 17. As a kid I would play in it, but I would never to to the back where I first saw light. I didn’t know what else I would find back there, and it creeped me out.

All in all, I seemed to have turned out alright. I do have a tendency to leave the door open when I leave the house, though. Whenever someone challenges me on it they say, “What, were you born in a barn?!”

No. Not quite.

 

Image Credit: ASWOA

Shitty First Drafts

Today was a shitty first drafts kind of day. 

That’s writerese for “write a bad first draft and edit it later.” Hemingway would put it simpler, “Write drunk, edit sober.” The term was coined by Anne Lamott. If you have any interest in writing at all, please read her book Bird by BirdIt’s a hilariously irreverent guidebook to the writer in all of us. 

Image

My shitty first draft day included zero writing. It was full of job searching and disappointing responses. I got an email right away in the morning saying that I had been passed up for a job I was really looking forward to interviewing for. Then I got another email saying I’m not qualified for a different job and another call saying that this wouldn’t be a good fit for the company. 

I’m not completely unemployable, but days like today make me question that. 

So that’s my shitty first draft. Tomorrow (or perhaps Monday; I don’t want to work on the weekend!) I will do better. I won’t be a complete pessimist and I will try to sell myself another day. 

But that brings me to another first draft. 

A friend told me the other day that he is good at telling stories, but he’s not good at writing them. “How do I get better at that aspect?” 

Good question. How does one get good at writing? 

It goes back to the shitty first draft. Write the story as you think of it, and then go back to it. I always try to reread my work the moment I’m finished with it, but for whatever reason, I cannot concentrate on the story. As I reread it my mind thinks, “You just wrote this. You don’t need to read it again.” So I end up skimming it and missing all of the grammatical errors and sentences that don’t make sense. I completely rely on my editor to do that for me. Yes, for those who asked, my editor moonlights as my wife. 

The other issue I run into is missing essential aspects of the story that I didn’t write down. I tell a story about running away from thugs in Calais, France, but I miss the part where a dog starts chasing the thieves. “How did you get away?!” Oh yeah. The dog…

But that’s the beauty of writing. I can tell and retell and embellish as many times as I want before anyone reads the story. But it always begins with a first draft. Until that first sentence is written out, I don’t have anything to work on. 

So writer friends, write it down. If you go back a week later and hate it, trash it. Try again. Try a different story. But remember, it’s your story. No one else is going to tell it for you. 

Grandpa Lessons

What makes a good story? My grandpa taught me the art of storytelling. The one instance he gave me actual advice was very formative. The rest of what he taught me came through observation.

I was fortunate to live within a mile of Grandpa while growing up and I probably spent more time at his house than at my own. Many of the stories he would relate were stories that transpired while I was present. This helped because I saw when and how my grandpa would embellish the events. “Embellish” is Writer for “lie.”

One time, my grandpa was telling me a story at which my mom was present. She sat there and continued to correct him. “George, that’s not how it happened.” “No George, he didn’t say that!”

Finally, Grandpa looked at her and said, “This is my story and I’m going to make it worth telling.” Which decidedly shut her up.

I just giggled because for a middle school kid to see his mom told off can be exhilarating. Especially when it’s coming from someone to whom she can’t talk back.

Several months later, I had a similar experience, except the roles had changed. I was telling Grandpa a story at which my mom was present, and she was correcting me. He didn’t give her many chances to alter my story, though.

“No, that’s not…”

“Sue, this is his story and he’s going to make it worth telling,” he interrupted without looking at her.

Grandpa George stood up for me in a moment that was critical. From then on I had the confidence to embellish my stories in a way that would capture the listener’s attention. Now I get to be a professional liar, and Mom just has to sit back and enjoy the tale.