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To tell a story


The holidays are upon us, which takes us all into the company of family for extended periods of time, of course, folks we're around so much we're damn near sick of 'em, folks we ain't seen in awhile, and folks who have been scarce since Hector was a pup. The Observer's clan tends to be of the "Sit Around the Table and Jaw" variety during get-togethers, not of the "Stare at Football or Fox News" type, thank God. We are a clan of storytellers for the most part; wanderers with big, bombastic voices, willing to shout each other down and demand our two cents, smiling our way to the point, each punch line delivered with such devastating, Rocky Balboa-like force as to make the folks picking ham out of their teeth laugh so hard they almost swallow their toothpick and choke.

The Observer has been teaching folks how to tell stories out at the college for going on 15 years now, so we're something of an expert on the topic of fictions large and small. The art of oral storytelling, however, is its own fabulous beast, with curling tale and rainbow tongue, the great looping bird of experience, anecdote and outright falsehood, flitting and rising and falling, stirring the wind of desire until the great rush of it forms something like a point. Unfortunately, life is never as neat as an O. Henry tale, never coming to the smart conclusion where the hero is rewarded and the villain gets his just desserts in a fall from the highest gable. Instead, life is just ordinary people trying to figure out how to put together the deluxe swing set of their own lives, even though there was no instruction booklet in the box it came in, look through it as we might. And so we need that great and looping bird, to symbolize the uncertainty of it all.

To tell a story, one must first accept the idea that there is no such thing as a true story. We all experience the world differently, and so we remember it differently than others, and in our remembering we make fictions and falsehoods real to ourselves. If you don't believe Your Old Pal, gather up a bunch of your oldest friends or relations around the Christmas dinner table and tell them the tale of an event they all bore witness to, years and years ago. You'll soon find that what you thought was the solid bedrock of your memory is actually a crumbling tufa that barely qualifies as stone, shot through with holes and errors, misremembered names and places, digests and omissions, things and people you have convinced yourself were there, but which really weren't. Such is the way of memory, fallible because we are fallible.

To tell a story, one must be bold. One must watch the audience, read their faces, see them lean slightly forward over their half-devoured plates of turkey or away in doubt, the barest hint of a grin ready to burst into full-throated laughter, their anticipation hanging there in space, waiting for you to take them to see the waterfall of your joy. This is why a good story must have a point. Why it must be more than anecdote. We desire the silver nugget of understanding and knowledge contained within it, so we can know how to live. Human beings developed this wonderful tool known as language for exactly that: to be able to pass on what isn't codified in our DNA, to become more than dumb instinct. There is a kind of love in this: "I was hunting two valleys north in winter when I came upon a cave with an entrance shaped like the cusp of a rising moon. And in that cave, I came upon a bear. Seek not that cave, brothers and sisters. Hear me, and look upon my scar."

To tell a story, one must have a story in the first place. Be that person, if you can. The best storytellers are those who risk and dare. We live through them and inside them, gasp at their falls, laugh at their narrow escapes, pound the table in hysterics when they get their just comeuppance from the universe but resolve to pick themselves up and quest again. To find a story, therefore, look for the ones with the muddy boots, the grins, the pale corkscrew scars. They're the ones who have seen distant lands, where the wild spices grow, where the fiercest bears lurk in caves shaped like the crowning head of the moon. Put down your fork and listen. There will be time enough for mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce later. Now is the time for the ancient need to know that which can't be learned from instinct.

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