Welcome to “Behind the Story,” a writer’s blog for readers and writers.
In the coming weeks and months I’ll be writing about such varied topics as tigers, fashion, food, art, war, maids, inter-racial marriage and Gulangyu, the small Chinese island where my late husband was born. I hope you’ll join in by leaving your comments and opinions.
The topic for today is:
Storytellers and Writers
All morning and half the afternoon I sit at the kitchen table and make up stories. I’m a writer. But am I a storyteller?
I don’t think so–not in the way I think of storytellers. To me, a storyteller is the person who starts his story when you’re dishing up the Thanksgiving turkey and still has everyone’s attention when it’s time for the pumpkin pie. He remembers anecdotes from elementary school and college that have a point. And yet, he never seems to write anything down. My theory is, he gets enough satisfaction simply telling the story face-to-face with his audience.
The storyteller at our Easter brunch
Paul (I’ll call him) didn’t start telling stories until after the Easter egg hunt. Like the other adults, he was too busy guiding the three- and four- year olds through the Byzantine rules of the hunt? Look for stickers on the large eggs. You only get one of each kind. If you find an extra, re-hide it. You may keep all the small candy-filled eggs you can find. No shoving, and the three-year-olds get a twenty-second start. Ready, start counting.
Paul stood back while the women encouraged and cajoled. Some strata, honey? Come on, just a spoonful. Don’t these strawberries look good?
Eventually, after the children were settled at their small table in the living room and the adults at the tall adult table, the conversation began, flowing from person to person in groups of two and three.
Then the storyteller found an opening and launched into his tale, an intricate story about his sister, mother and grandmother that went back decades and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and back. It was fascinating enough to hold everyone’s attention for the next thirty minutes.
“I told this story many times when I was in college,” he said, adding a coda to the main tale. “The boys were incensed that my sister had made me drive all the way to Vermont and back on false pretenses. The girls focused on how romantic it was that she’d quit school and flown to Paris to be with her handsome French boyfriend.”
This is another thing I’ve noticed: Storytellers tell the same story over and over, adding flourishes here and there, embellishing as the years go by. If you’re married to a storyteller, you may feel you know his stories backwards and forwards. But can you repeat them? Will people listen if you try?
My late husband Eugene was a storyteller. He told long stories at dinner parties and everyone listened. Many times I asked him to write them down, but he never did.
After he died, I felt it was up to me to tell his stories. Since I’m a writer the best way to do that was to incorporate bits and pieces of his stories into my novels. The stories about his childhood in China during the Japanese occupation were the inspiration for my first novel, Tiger Tail Soup: A Novel of China at War. In its pages, you can read the fictionalized version of Eugene’s stories.
Next week’s blog post: “The Fall of the Bamboo Curtain.” Please stop by and check it out. If you’d like a reminder, check the second small box below the comment box.