I spent a fine time yesterday at the Alton C. Allen Historical Conference in Halletsville, where this year’s topic was “Texas Disasters”.
Before some of you go thinking I was invited because of my writing being disastrous I was asked to speak about the 1937 New London school explosion. A book I wrote in 2012, My Boys and Girls Are in There, is about that horrific day when over 300 students and their teachers died when a vast pool of natural gas exploded beneath their school building.
One of the folks at the conference made the comment that a nonfiction account like mine was likely the only possible way to relate a story so horrible.
But she was wrong.
My friend Zack Kibodeaux, whose father Logan was my research associate on that book, told the New London story through a completely different medium. Zack is a singer, musician and songwriter extraordinaire and his Blue Water Highway Band is constantly on the road with gigs all over the place. “A Voice in Rama”, one of the songs on their album titled “The Things We Carry”, is Zack’s take on New London. It’s a haunting ballad, beautifully written and sung, which manages to be sad and uplifting at the same time. I highly recommend you listen to it, letting the beautiful orchestration and the carefully crafted lyrics take you to another time and place. And I’ll bet you’ll agree that the emotions it will elicit and the setting it evokes are as strong as anything I could have written about that tragic day.
Writers of prose, be it fact or fiction, don’t have a monopoly on yarn-spinning; a story can be told in any number of ways.
A fat novel about the sad life of Eleanor Rigby couldn’t possibly be any more effective than the Beatles’ scant 208 words in the song. And by all accounts the musical “Hamilton” (I haven’t seen it; I’m waiting for the ticket prices to come down and a production to come closer than New York) captures that founding father’s unique life in a different, though not necessarily better, way than author Ron Chernow did in his excellent biography.
And nothing – not a shorty story, novel, play, song or poem – could tell of a son leaving home better a single painting by Norman Rockwell titled “Breaking Home Ties”. When I teach my writing students how to interject details into their writing I show them that picture, which is at the top of the blog today.
Look hard at it. The boy and his father, surely waiting for a bus, are looking in different directions – the man to the past, the boy to the future. The old dog senses something is up, and is already missing the boy that probably grew up with him. The boy is off to college, which is a world unknown and a little scary for the father. And amid all those details notice what’s not there: the mother. Which makes the imminent separation of these two all the more important.
That one canvas is a short course in storytelling. In fact, most of Rockwell’s paintings are.
The old adage about there being more than one way to skin a cat might be true, though I’ve never seen the logic of such an enterprise. But this I do know: there are many more ways than one way to tell a story.