Storytellers

I’ve interviewed many people over the years, first as a reporter, then as a family historian and writer of this blog. There is one common element strung through all the tellers of these stories: where at first they were hesitant, shy, and doubtful they had anything interesting to say, by the end the memories flowed and they didn’t want to stop sharing.

I have watched the lights of understanding flare up in their eyes as they spoke, as they made a connection they hadn’t known was there to be made. I’ve seen them struggle to put their feelings to words and then release them, let them go.

I have been told this, hours or days after an interview:

“Later that day, I thought of something else to tell you.”

“I hadn’t thought of these things in years. I didn’t even remember they’d happened.”

“I didn’t realize I felt this way.”

“After our interview, I talked with my son for an hour over coffee. Just the two of us. We’d never done that before. He’d never heard my stories.”

Native storytellersStories are powerful. We all have them, back to the very first group of H. Erectus that evolved “Uh uh” to “And then…” as they sat around the campfire gnawing mammoth bones.

Stories are how we connect. How we laugh and learn. Even how we stop wars.

I used to get annoyed when people told me they were voting for George W. Bush because he was the type of guy you could have a beer with. I still say there’s much more to voting than that, but the concept has something to it: we want to be understood, and we want to understand. We do that through stories, whether it’s about the scar you got as a child, growing up in northern Minnesota, an abortion, or the time you once had a beer with the president.

I’m often asked how I find the stories for this blog and how I think of my own things to tell. The truth is, I’m stumped by this question. There are so many stories to tell. Think about your day–what’s the most beautiful thing you saw morning? Whom did you speak with andwoman storyteller what did you say? What problems did you face today, little or large? How did you solve them? What made you laugh? Cry? Yell? Perplexed?

And each current story begets another, some related memory. The only problems I have writing this blog are when I don’t take the time to stop. To observe and listen. To think about the people around me. There are so many stories.

All of this is to say:

Stop. Share. Learn. Love.

Thanks to all my storytellers. There are more to come.

Ms. Jenewein

I had her for only one class, Expository Writing, and I don’t remember much about her. She wore lipstick that shimmered. Her face was shiny-clean, framed by curly red hair and scarves. She smiled often, but she was not bubbly.

In the past, the names of my two or three favorite former teachers rolled of my tongue like unspooling thread. They were teachers whose enthusiasm for learning was contagious, making them obvious contenders for the deserved Favorite Teacher title.

Ms. Jenewein was never one of them, until fairly recently.

A few years ago, I stopped to consider that, whenever I thought about my writing, I often went back to one particular assignment in Ms. Jenewein’s class. We had to interview someone of our choosing and write a profile article. (Apparently, I liked that assignment. See: True STORIES.)

I chose to interview a friend’s father because, starting with almost nothing, he had worked hard to become quite successful. I asked him questions, typed up the answers, and turned in my profile. It was informative, well-organized, and concise. Probably B-worthy. Fine by me.

Ms. Jenewein handed it back with something like, “You can do better,” written at the top.

Um, excuse me? It was a perfectly respectable article. It was done, and done pretty well. I’ll take the B, thank you.

I walked up to her desk, article in hand, hoping to talk her out of making me re-do it. She asked me why it was so dry, why she didn’t feel she knew the subject of the interview. Finally, I crinkled my nose and quietly admitted, “I don’t like him very much.”

“Aha!” she said. “Write the real version. He’ll never have to know.”

The final article, the one I earned an A for–the one I was proud of–was called, “Interview with a Vampire.” (The movie was big at the time; I was being clever.) Ms. Jenewein hugged me and said, “This is the result when a writer tells the truth.”

I have never received another piece of advice more useful. Tell the truth. It’s not as easy as it sounds, far from it. But it is the absolute best guiding principle in writing. Readers know when you’re lying, when you’re fitting the story into the words you want to say, or don’t. You know it, too. And when, in the midst of writing, you hit upon a truth you didn’t even realize was there, it’s golden.

There are loads of books out there that use many pages explaining how to become a good writer. I haven’t read them all, but I can tell you most of it is probably crap. (I’m not talking writers’ memoirs, which I love.) Partly because, as with most things, the beauty of the writing is in the eye of the beholder. But also because it doesn’t take 150 pages to list the three things one must do to become a good writer: Read–a lot. Write–a lot. And tell the truth. These don’t ensure you will be a good writer, but you can’t be one without them.

Ms. Jenewein could have just scrawled a “B” on my paper and been done with it. She certainly had enough essays to grade to keep her busy. But she didn’t. She told me it wasn’t good enough, that I could do better, because I could. Without her, it might have taken me a lot longer to figure that out—as long as it took me to realize she was one of my favorite teachers.

Edith

Edith Chandler Kinder was born on a small farm in the woods of northern Minnesota in 1923. At the age of eighty-three, Edith, my grandmother-in-law, politely allowed me to interview her, slightly flummoxed as to why I should care. For over an hour, she answered my questions in her lilting, singing voice, often resting fingers bent by age on her cheek as she reminisced. Following is an excerpt:

I was born in Minnesota. A township, but we always used Ballclub, Minnesota as our mailing address. Ballclub was kind of an Indian community. They had an Indian school there. And so I was the eighth child, and the first delivery my mother ever had a doctor attending her. And she got mad at him because all he did was sit in the living room and talk with the men. That’s what she said he did!

Anyway, all went well. And I was a momma’s girl all my life. My dad left us when I was three years old. He was, I think, a nice man. I never really knew him. But he would drink. Not all the time. He was more like a drunk on the weekend or when he got his paycheck for the logs. He was a logger. And he’d go to town and he’d get his money and then he’d pay his bills and then he’d drink the rest. So my mother had a hard time that way.

He hit her. I remember it. I was there. I was three and we had a bedroom, the boys’ bedroom. Was two double beds and then just an alleyway between the two and he had her down, hitting on her. And I remember jumping up and down on the bed, screaming. That’s all I remember about it. From then on, he could not come back. So I don’t know if that was the first abuse and she said once is enough, or if there was trouble. I don’t know why it was so cut and dried, right away. That’s all I know about it. But, you see, when I came along everybody was tired of talking about everything. I didn’t hear a lot of things.

[We had] maybe at a time ten milking cows and my older brothers would come home and help put up hay in the summer for these cows. And [my mother] sold the cream. A few dollars a week. And that’s what she supported us on.

My mother came from Norway when she was three years old. Had two sisters that lived in the neighborhood, they were always good friends. And that’s where my cousins come so important now in our life. Because we were brought up with them, out there on the farm. But they had dads, yet. I really didn’t know about having a dad and I sure never missed it. I think if you have one good parent, that’s about enough.

My mother had six boys in a row. And then she had two girls. And then somewhere long about the fourth boy, whose name was James Thomas, her little old log house caught fire. And some of the boys were in the house with her and she set them outside. You know, you only had a pail of water. You carried a pail of water from the well. That’s all she had. She threw it on the fire but it didn’t do anything. So by then she went outside and the little one was missing. Little James Thomas was just walking age. And she had to go back into the burning house to find him, and hunted for him, and she got burned, badly. And she found him hiding behind a door, to get away from the fire. But he was burned badly, and he died.

And they didn’t expect her to live. She said that when she was lying in this bed in this so-called hospital, she heard her two sisters talking about who was going to take her other boys.

Simple little things stick in my mind. One night, my youngest brother was pitching hay off the haystack, feeding the cows. And I was lying on top of this haystack, and it was the most beautiful night. I can still see it. In the middle of winter. Cold night. Sparkly stars. That has always stuck in my mind. Beautiful.