Story Creation begins with asking the Right Questions
Last weekend’s session with the Writing and Oral Traditions cohort was like being at a retreat.
The Annual Connecticut Storytelling Festival and Conference at Connecticut College in New London was filled with music, laughter and most of all, good stories.
My favorite presenter was nationally-known storyteller Donald Davis. He was mesmerizing and funny from his first story Friday night, “Come Home with Me,” to his last “gem” on Saturday night. Through his real-life stories about his childhood, you felt like you knew the characters he described as you listened to him. There was a universal feeling of commonality in all of his stories that everyone could relate to.
Donald’s description of his parents, grandmother and little brother, were tender, warm, compassionate and funny. I wondered how he could remember all of those stories. In his Saturday afternoon workshop, titled “So You Think You Don’t Have Stories?”, he explained in a simple, straightforward way that one can find stories just by looking into their past.
Asking the Right Questions
Donald started the session with a look at early education. When a child is in grade school up to Junior High, after they read a story, they’re asked what happened. In high school, after students read a story, they’re asked what the plot was. Donald pointed out that those two questions end the creativity process. Those questions make a student feel that something has to happen or else they don’t have a story. It’s difficult to find a plot if the idea for a story hasn’t formed yet.
Donald doesn’t find stories by asking himself what happened; he goes back in time and remembers places and people. Donald writes lists of the places he’s lived and visited to start gathering bits and pieces for his stories. For example, if you ask Grandma about something that happened in her life, she would probably say nothing or wouldn’t be able to think of anything she thinks is important. If you ask Grandma to describe her house; what the rooms looked like, who came to visit, what she liked to cook and what her family liked to eat, she would tell you everything she could think of. Through those reminisces, stories form. “Uncle Grover” may have been over one night when something happened and there’s a story. A story can be found in the midst of an uneventful memory on an average day. You may hear an inverted sentence or something out of the ordinary.
Donald makes another list of people. He writes down all the people he knew from immediate family to distant relatives, teachers, neighbors, classmates, family friends, church people, all the way down to the postman. Then, he goes back many times in his mind to those memories, concentrating, until they become clear. Years ago, he wanted to write about his childhood neighborhood, but he couldn’t remember much in the beginning. As he kept at it, going back in time to the same place, he was able to name all of the neighbors on his old street.
Sadly, Donald lost his wife last December, but he still keeps her alive in his stories. Sometimes all that’s left living of a person is their obit and their story. He doesn’t invent stories and he keeps them positive, so he doesn’t have to worry about offending anyone. He finds the humor in storytelling through descriptiveness. In laughter, there’s recognition. The audience has to feel the emotion to be there with him.
Donald used “The Odyssey” as a model for everything. Leaving home to find home. When you go back, home is the same, but we’re not. We’re changed by the journey. All of the scraps of life we gather up in our lives are like quilt scraps. They’re all there in bits and pieces and we, as storytellers, have to put them into piles, and select our stories from them.
If you build a portrait for your story, it won’t move. There has to be progress, everything comes back again and the end is at the story’s starting point. What did we learn? And, you don’t have to be chronologically correct all the time. In memoir, you can add some truth to a place in the story where it fits best and the story will still be real and authentic.
I heard every word Donald said Saturday afternoon and it got me thinking way back in my past, to all of those people who touched my life in many different ways. Not only the good but the bad, because there are stories there too, to flesh out and learn from.
The exercises Donald uses to find stories were the highlight of my weekend because I like to know how things work. I came away with so much rich material in my own life, I’ll never be without a story again!
Here is a story I created using the techniques I learned at the workshop:
The summer I graduated from high school my maternal grandmother, Susan, died. She was the matriarch of her family (see vintage family photo above) and every one of her four living children behaved while she was living. What happened after was a saga that continued for many years.
My grandfather designed the plans for the big white house that sat on a large corner block of Woodin Street and Glemby Street. The front door with the vestibule was on Woodin. If someone rang the doorbell, my grandmother wouldn’t answer because she didn’t know them. Her house was spotless and everyone took their shoes off in her back enclosed porch or you stayed outside.
After the wake, everyone (including people I didn’t know) went back to my grandmother’s house. This was a complete surprise because my grandparents lived quietly in their later years. They never had parties or people over except their children and even then, they were kept in the kitchen or on the back porch.
That night, in late June after my Grandmother’s wake, every light was on in her house. The front door was wide open and the vestibule door was open. The little anti-chamber had small black and white tiles on the floor and there was a closet in there. No one ever entered the vestibule and I was afraid to look in the closet, but that night, it was overloaded with hanging coats and coats thrown on the floor. There were people everywhere. My grandfather sat in his chair in the enclosed porch, oblivious to what was going on around him. Everyone was walking on my grandmother’s white rugs with their shoes on. Someone moved her stuffed dog off the white couch and it was on its side on the floor. Drinks sat on her expensive mahogany coffee and end tables without coasters. As I watched the pools of sweat from the glasses make rings on the wood, I pictured my grandmother’s face if she were there.
I felt uneasy as I went from room to room, sober and sad, watching her family and strangers smoke and drink all over my grandmother’s beautiful, immaculate house. She wasn’t even buried yet and people were sitting in her sunroom off the living room, on the couch where she used to lie when she suffered from “palpitation” attacks. I always thought those “palpitations” were serious, because she was incapacitated for a whole day. You never knew if grandma was going to keep a date because if her “palpitations” occurred. My mother would pronounce grandma out of commission for the day, but the event would go on anyway.
I walked back through the living room into the kitchen where my Uncle Babe, the youngest, was opening the refrigerator door. He was a nice quiet guy, and the complete opposite of his siblings. I was looking for something normal in the house that night and he seemed to be acting like himself.
With his back to me, Uncle Babe asked how I was doing.
I replied, “Grandma would die all over again if she were here tonight and saw all of this.”
Then, just as he was taking a large bottle of soda off the shelf, a dozen eggs fell right out and shattered all over the floor! He turned around and looked at me.
I said, “Oh, Grandma’s watching and she doesn’t like this at all!”
A Memorable Cohort Experience
The entire Storytelling weekend was an experience I’ll never forget. It far surpassed my goals, objectives and visions. I enjoyed every second of it. Spending the weekend with the cohort and bonding even more through this experience was very special to me.