I sometimes kid myself into thinking, when somebody tells me they enjoyed one of my books, that their enjoyment was owing to my excellent description, suspenseful pacing, believable dialogue, and clever wording. When, in reality, it was the story they liked. And, almost always, the story that a writer tells is his or her take on a story that has been told countless times before.
That’s not to say that all those other devices and manipulations aren’t important – essential, in fact – to the writing and to its ultimate effect on the reader. But those things that a good writer employs are like the attractive parts of a car. And the story is the engine. It’s nice to have lots of doodads and shiny chrome and glossy paint on a car. But, first and foremost, you’d better have an engine. The same goes, when it comes to writing, for a good, dependable story. Because that’s what keeps your reader or listener onboard.
You want proof?
Let’s go to the first section of the Bible. Not for any spiritual nurturing, though it is there in abundance. This time, let’s consider the Old Testament solely as literature.
Anyone intending to read the Bible through – from Genesis to Revelation – is likely to start out swimmingly. They will probably churn right through Genesis and Exodus. But many a well-intentioned reader has skidded to an abrupt stop a couple of pages into Leviticus.
Here’s why. Genesis and Exodus are full of stories, and mighty fine ones, what with that Adam/Eve/Snake triangle, Noah and his floating zoo, Abraham folding up his tent and taking off to parts unknown, and Moses pulling down all those plagues. That’s good stuff. Then, in Leviticus, there are suddenly no stories at all. There’s a long, dry catalogue of rules.
I may need the rules. But I’ll more willingly swallow the stories.
Who among us doesn’t have good memories of great storytellers in our lives? Maybe it was a grandparent or an uncle who could spin a yarn as smoothly as sweet cream oozing out of a porcelain cup. Maybe it was a teacher who made history come completely alive by turning dusty, old facts into a tale full of living, breathing people.
The Library of Congress and National Public Radio have always realized the power of stories and a few years ago they teamed up to harvest a bunch of them. They call this adventure Storycorps, and it involves putting a recording studio housed in a trailer at various places around the country. It’s a simple enough process. Two people – maybe a mother and daughter, a father and son, old friends – go in, sit down, and one asks a couple of questions to get the other one started. Then a story emerges. Finally, those stories end up in the audio archives of the Library of Congress, where they become individual threads of the rich, enormous tapestry that is our history. And our soul.
NPR used to play one every Friday morning, and I would listen to it on my way to work. One week a Mrs. Theresa Burroughs told her daughter how, in a city in the deep south in the early 1960s, she learned how to play dominoes by having to stand waiting while the white men at the voter registration table finished their games before asking her ridiculous questions that she couldn’t possibly answer. Questions that were designed to keep her from registering to vote. Like how many black jelly beans were in a large jar on the table. She kept going back, day after day, and the men finally made the mistake of asking her to recite the preamble to the Constitution, which she did perfectly. And so she voted, that day, for the first time.
That story, told by a woman who I would be proud to know, speaks volumes about the ignorance of prejudiced people, the inherent evil of discrimination, and the dogged spirit of persistence that can overcome them.
Stories are potent, powerful things. They are the ties that bind us tightly to our past and, hopefully, they are the warnings that occasionally tap us on our collective shoulder and keep us from repeating our foolishness.
So, you heard any good stories lately?
I certainly hope so.