Saturday, July 04, 2009

Makin' Up Stories

It may or may not be true, but my family swears that I wrote on everything from newspaper to the living room walls from the time I could hold a crayon in a chubby, sweaty fist. I've taken their word for it simply because it sounds right. I've always loved filling up empty space with whatever was lurking inside my head. I've always loved filling up silences with anecdotes. I was born under a chatty star, a story-teller's star.

The funny thing is, in spite of the fact that I've been writing all my life and have always identified myself as a writer, even other writers are often taken aback that I tell stories.

Yes, even a trip to the grocery store is a story. I've never responded to "how was your trip?" with anything as mundane or annoyingly inconsequential as "fine."


Surely we can do better than that.

For me, every interaction with the world around me is part of a never-ending journal entry. And if it happened, it can be re-told. And if you're re-telling it, you might as well sell it to the cheap seats.

The odd thing-- at least to me, coming from a family of very rich story-telling traditions and being slanted that way from birth-- is that people, in this day and age of television sound bites and thirty second meals from the microwave, are suspicious of good stories. I'm never quite sure if this is because we live in an era of "based upon a true story" fictions, or if we have so much overblown sensationalism flung at us, or if the craft of telling things richly and beautifully is dying. I pray it isn't the latter.

Because it really isn't that bizarre things are always happening to me. It's that I relish every little bubble in the glass, every bump in the road, every interesting new face as part of my story. And nobody ever opened a book to read "once upon a time everything was fine, really, nothing much was going on" and turned the page for more. Fine? Yes, well, thanks very much, if you could point me to the dark-stormy-night-and-then-a-scream section I'll be on my way.

I used to worry over this. I'd be huddled around an illegal bonfire on the beach and somebody would say something that led me into a tale. And half the people huddled there would be grinning and nodding. And one quarter of them would be quietly interested. But that last quarter would be blatantly disgusted. They were part of the Fullocrap tribe. They never believed a story, and weren't content to wonder. They're the people who always blurt out "I don't believe it."

These are the same people who, as adults, told their kids at a very young age that there was no Santa. They claimed it was because they didn't want to lie to their children, but it was really because they wanted credit for the presents. They raised weird, creepy kids, whom I tortured with the most outrageous stuff I could dream up, running home to count backwards from one hundred to see how long it would take for their parents to call mine. "Why," Mrs. Uptight would shout, "did your daughter tell Norman he was going to have a tick crawl into his ear and suck out his brains til he died in his sleep? He hasn't slept in a week!"

(Pssst. I never got in trouble. My parents thought your family was weird and laughed. Which is probably just as much a reason for me being kind of mean as your mom is for you being totally weird.)

I hated them in my youth, but became fascinated with them in adulthood. At some point, you see, I realized that lots of people question the story-teller, but only a few despise him or her for the story. You see bitter anger in those faces. I've never understood a hostile response to a story, so I was often drawn to members of the Fullocrap nation. It's another part of my nature-- I love to know what makes something work.

In recent years, though, through study and experience, I've come to the startling conclusion that most people enter the world differently. It might sound odd to someone else, but I really was surrounded by story-telling as a kid. We begged my father to tell us tales of growing up in a magical place called the Blue Ridge Mountains. We listened to yarns from across the sea and dreamed of Ireland's green valleys. My father and mother never came home from anything-- not even a trip to the mailbox-- without something interesting to report.

But I also recall the day my nephew, who takes after his mom's side of the family rather than mine, answered a question that turned on my lightbulb full-beam. I had seen reports on the television of a lock-down at his school because the bank next door had been robbed and the armed suspect had escaped. So I asked him "how was school?" in a leading tone.

He shrugged and said "fine."

Honestly? Right then I got it.

For me, any invitation to conversation has ribbons and bows on it. If I go to the post office and nothing particularly bizarre happened, something still happened. So when I get home, if I'm asked "anything new?" I will always have an answer. It's same-river-twice syndrome. Something's ALWAYS new. There's a movie night coming up; I saw Mr. Peters-- he looks great and sends his best; the entire breadth of Beach Street was wall-to-wall kids all the way to Bay Ave. My answer to that question would never, ever, under any circumstances, be "nope, not really."

Not unless I'm pretty mad at you, anyway.

Some people would say it. Some people always answer "fine," or "nothing much." I suspect these people can do things that would blow me away. Calculus or engineering wonders. They are, most likely, too busy thinking up things from scratch that involve silence and reflection. And because I am absolute crap at that kind of thing I admire it immensely. I suspect that's why these are also the same people who bait me to tell a story so often, and seem to be the closest listeners: they admire talents they lack, too.

The others-- the Fullocraps-- I haven't figured out. I have a theory, though. I think perhaps they just don't look at the world the way I do, but that they also wish they did. Or maybe that's too direct. Maybe it's more that a small voice inside them thinks "why doesn't anything like that ever happen to me?" Unlike the engineers and physicists of the world, they don't have anything particularly important filling up the silence created by "fine" and "nothing much," which are probably just genius-code for "I'm busy thinking up a cure for cancer, go away." I suspect that this tiny part of the population, the not-storytellers-but-not-geniuses-and-not-into-participating segment, is sad. It would, at least, explain the need to destroy a good story with a sneer. I think perhaps these are the same people who delight in destroying sandcastles and snowmen.

As for me, I am glad to be made as I am. I just don't have the build-a-suspension-bridge-from-toothpicks gene, though if I am ever stranded on an island I pray there are a few of those with me. I admire those minds so very deeply, plus when they get tired out they make great listeners. The Fullocraps never end up on islands unless they get there by cruise ship. And when they come home, if you ask "how was your trip?" the answer is-- "fine".



  1. I am generally a "fine" person unless it's fiction. I think I don't notice a whole lot of what is really happening around me because I'm in my head with the people I created there.

  2. That's cuz yer one of the geniuses.

  3. ROFL I soooo believe this about you.

  4. Amanda Brice6:09 PM

    My dad always used to get mad at me when I would go on for minutes in response to a question that he thought would be best answered in a word or maybe a sentence at most. :(

  5. I think making up stories is THE AWESOME.

  6. First off, I have to say that I LOVE cruise ships.
    I spent over 12 years working on them as a Scuba Instructor,
    Shore Excursion Manager and an IT Officer.

    For 2 years I also worked shoreside in Miami as a database IT guy.

    During my years on ships, I have to stay that many things happened
    and that life is definately stranger than fiction on cruise ships.

    Many people have asked me to share the stories I have collected over
    the years, so I am complying with their request.

    My site is:

    If you had any stories of your own to add, please
    send them to me and I will be happy to add them.

    Sean B. Halliday