A page a day

Life on California's beautiful Central Coast

The importance of stories

Chances are, at some time in your life you have known someone who was a wonderful storyteller. Maybe it was a parent or grandparent, a teacher, librarian or babysitter. The tales they told were fodder for a child’s active imagination, sending your mind off on amazing adventures. This storyteller, perhaps, made you realize that the world was an exciting place where strange and wondrous things could happen on any given day.

Stories are hard to tell. I’m a writer, by profession and natural inclination, but I cannot tell you a good story to save my soul. I might tell you a few fragments, little snippets and pieces, but I don’t want to bore you with my talking so I’ll stop after a minute or two. I can write you a story, but I don’t tell stories at parties or even to my closest friends. The chance that I will fail, and you will not be entertained, is just too great, and I hate to disappoint.

This fear of mine is rather sad, because the belief that life can take you to completely expected places first came to me from stories. Two of my grandparents were remarkable storytellers. My grandmother Etling’s stories were simple and real. She grew up in a very small town in Wisconsin and she would tell my brother and I about growing up there with her brother, and the adventures that they had together. All of the tales had a sense of place straight from the small-town Midwest: the woods, the lake, the river, the ski hill, the tiny paper mill town, the family farm. It was almost like listening to my beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder books first-hand.

My grandfather Mitchell’s stories were filled with drama and excitement. He had been a Sheriff’s deputy in our small California town, and he had gotten himself into some strange scrapes, like rescuing horses from a flooding river (even though he couldn’t swim) or being kidnapped, in his own patrol car, by two drug addicts who left him in the trunk (he had left his gun at home that day). He was a storyteller by nature and people loved his tales. We would all listen with rapt attention when he told one, hanging on every word.

I was thinking of stories today because I found this photograph of my grandfather on my brother Will’s blog. He’s pictured with a tiger that was part of a movie being filmed in Santa Ynez sometime in the early 1970s. The details are long lost – Renton has Alzheimer’s now and is unable to recall the past or his family now. But he was in the movie, and so was the tiger, and it was another captivating story that he frequently told.

Renton and the tiger.

It’s no accident that I became a journalist, because I wanted very badly to tell stories that people were interested in and confused or amused or horrified by. There’s probably some irony that though I claim to not tell stories, I have been writing them down for all of my adult life. But I see it as more of a translation process. The subjects of the stories tell me where they came from, or what their experience has been, and I write down their words.

Someday I’d like to be able to tell stories to my children. I hope they’ll grow up with wild imaginations that aren’t solely fueled by movies and TV shows. Thinking of this makes me more motivated than ever to learn to tell stories out loud. It’s never too late .. right?

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