Our Stories Make Good Conversation

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“We’re all natural storytellers, sharing our stories every time we communicate with someone — whether it’s a casual water-cooler chat or deep conversations with a close friend.” — Mark David Gerson in “When Was the Last Time You Told Your Story?

I read Mark David’s post about our natural inclination for sharing our stories with each other right after getting home from a weekend trip for visits with friends and family. Family visits often include updates about what people we used to know are doing now, leading often to “remember the time when” accounts of things that happened a quarter of a century ago.

Visits with friends begin with “what’s been going on lately?” and, as the evening gets late, morph into childhood stories that come forth as one topic leads to another topic through a myriad of diverse pathways. Saturday night, we ended up talking about pivotal moments, events that had a large impact on our life’s work and our points of view. We learned, among other things that our good friend Gordon had had near brushes with death as a child: these were stories we’d never heard even though we’ve known him and his wife Joyce since the 1970s. It just never came up before.

When I was going to graduate school at Syracuse University, my father quite naturally began thinking about his work as the acting dean of the journalism school there when I was several years old. As I haunted the streets he used to know, he began to think of old stories, things that just never came up during dinner table conversations back home. Every week or so, I received a typewritten letter of several pages not only relating tall tales about Syracuse in the old days, but incidents in his life in Quincy, Washington, Ft. Collins, Colorado and the Colorado Rockies, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

These letters painted a picture of what my father’s life was like as a child and also as a young man the same age I was at the time I read them. Unfortunately, during the summer term, we had to vacate the graduate student apartment building to provide living space for summer session students, and this meant storing a lot of stuff in the locked units in the basement. When I came back to Syracuse that fall, I discovered that in spite of the locks, many of the units had been broken into and the contents had been stolen.

I lost a good pair of “roper’s boots” purchased several years earlier in Browning, Montana, and I lost a briefcase where I had stored my father’s letters. Some scum–in my estimation of the people who committed the burglary–was wearing my boots and maybe even attending classes in the same buildings I was using my briefcase. The letters were, no doubt, tossed in the trash.

Today, those letters would be sitting in a computer and could be printed out again. As it was, there was no way to replace them or even to remember the stories they contained.

I thought of this last night when Gordon spoke of putting some of his stories into a book. No doubt, they would mean a great deal to his sons even in e-mail form. But they would have a wider audience for they’re not only interesting–simply as good storytelling–but they contain details about another time and place…what it was like to work in a steel mill or for the long-gone Nickel Plate Railroad.

As a writer, I see Gordon’s stories and my late father’s stories first as the way they might appear as written accounts–prospective essays, articles short stories and novels. But there’s more to them. For a family, they’re history and legacy; for friends, they’re a sharing of experiences.

Our stories not only make good conversation, they forge deeper friendships. So I ask, as Mark David asked in his post, when was the last time you told your story?

Malcolm

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5 responses

  1. What a tragedy, losing your father’s letters! I have my aunt and uncle’s love letters, written when they were courting back in the 1920s (this is the couple on which I based Grace and Otto’s personalities, and who actually lived on Windy Hill; it was their peach orchard). Those letters are the one thing I would grab if my house was burning down. I’m so sorry you lost your dad’s; I know how I would feel if I lost my letters.

    • I really didn’t like having to tell him about the loss. Fortunately, I have many other things he’s written–and I do remember some of the stories. That’s neat, your using your aunt and uncle’s old letters as a jumping off point for Grace and Otto.

      Malcolm

    • That was a loss I couldn’t do much about, Montucky. I did hear some of the stories again, but could never replace the hundreds of words of single-spaced typed letters for comprehensiveness.

      Malcolm

  2. Pingback: Storytelling Story and Narrative for the week of Mar. 26, 2010