A Storytelling Life (Part 1)

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Because this is about living one’s life as a storyteller, I’ll begin with a story. It’s about the person who taught me how to tell a story: my mother. She was a difficult woman in many ways—a difficult person to have as a mother, anyway—demanding, guilt-inspiring, largely oblivious to the concept of a child’s privacy, sometimes overinvolved to the point of inducing claustrophobia. What saved our relationship was the expansiveness of her spirit, her incorrigible sense of humor, and—this most of all—her tireless need to explore life and seek out the story of everyone she met. She was a lover of literature, but nothing any fiction writer ever created fascinated her as much as the adventures of real people. I never met anyone who could tell a story as well as she did.

For instance. There was the occasion when she paid me a visit, in the little New Hampshire town where I lived at the time, with the man I was married to then, and our children. My mother and I had set out for dinner, just the two of us and my best friend. I had tried mightily to describe my mother over the years: the horrifying moment when she stormed onto the playground at school to pull off the cap of a boy who had teased me, throwing it in a deep ravine; the time she greeted my 16-year-old boyfriend with the question, “At what age did you begin to masturbate?” Still, no anecdote could convey the picture as effectively as the source. Exhibit A: my mother.

We took a table in the corner. Picture one of those old colonial bed-and-breakfast settings, with waitresses dressed like Pilgrims, where the fare runs to prime rib and mashed potatoes, and a clove of garlic has never crossed the threshold. Picture the clientele: dyed-in-the-wool New Englanders. Frugal, reserved churchgoers out for Sunday dinner with the person they refer to as their better half.

Picture my mother: Wearing a big, broad-brimmed hat. A quarter-century of life in a small New Hampshire town had not made a Yankee out of her, the daughter of Russian immigrant Jews. This was a woman who quoted Chaucer in line at the grocery store; a woman who wore a Mexican lace dress, braless, to my wedding; a woman who once threw a party for a hundred people at which every guest was male. A woman who—if she were sitting in the back row of the brass section of a symphony orchestra, and suddenly started laughing—could have overwhelmed the tuba.

Now, as we sat around the checkered tablecloth at Ye Olde Country Inn, drinking our three-dollar wine and sawing into our chicken, my mother began one of her stories. I can’t remember what it was about, there were so many of them—stories so rich with character and dialogue, suspense, humor, tragedy, and redemption, that if a movie were playing in the next room, you’d choose the storyteller over the silver screen.

All of a sudden, partway through my mother’s telling of her story, I realized something. Except for her voice, the restaurant was dead quiet. All eyes and ears were on my mother.

The next day, my friend called me, still recovering. “I was at the bank this morning,” she said. “And a man came up to me who said he’d been at the restaurant the night before. He grabbed my arm with this desperate expression.”

“Who was that woman?” the man had implored. “And where can I find her again?”

THERE YOU HAVE IT. My legacy. Daughter of a master storyteller—for whom allegiance to the truth took second position after reverence for good drama—I took to heart the lessons of two stories told to me when I was very young. One was of the princess locked in a room each night with a pile of straw, instructed to spin it into gold. That was what a writer had to do, I knew: Study a pile of dry sticks and grass, and figure out a way to make it glittering and precious. But the legend I loved even more came from Arabian Nights. It concerned Scheherazade, a young woman condemned to death, who kept a man from killing her by telling him a new and irresistible story every night. Spinning a tale well, I figured, could actually save a person’s life. Possibly mine.

The way my school classmates were taught by their parents how to play ball or ski, I was coached in the art of telling stories. Pace and voice, choice of language, what to include, what to withhold and when. My mother didn’t believe in euphemisms. (“Say ‘die,’ not ‘pass away,’” she’d tell me.) Child of the Depression, she favored economy over adverbs. (“You’re taking your reader to the bathroom,” my mother said of a passage in which I labored too long over the chronology of each event. “Do your job well with all the other parts of speech, and you won’t need adverbs.” Forty years later, it is a rare event to find an “ly” word in any story I tell.)

But I learned more than craft under my mother’s ceaseless tutelage. She instructed me in the essence of what well-told stories are meant to accomplish—the idea that the joy of writing well might actually redeem and even trump the raw material of painful experience, thereby revealing deeply meaningful truths to the reader. Days when I’d come home from school, upset by some injustice or the hurtful behavior of a friend, my mother’s words of consolation seldom varied. “Never mind,” she said. “You can always write about it.”

Then she went about the business of teaching me how—by her own extraordinary example, most of all. Later in life, once my sister and I were grown, our mother published books of her own. But it may be that her finest creative work took place on those thousand and one nights she presided over our dinner table, entertaining and instructing us with her stories.

Both of us are writers now.

IF LIVING MY life has not always been smooth, the act of writing about it has provided consolation. Not that a person should use storytelling as a form of retribution or an opportunity to vent anger and bitterness, enlist a listener or a reader’s advocacy and support against an adversary, or win points for heroism. But here’s what I’ve learned in thirty-five years as a writer—sometimes telling my own stories, sometimes making them up, but always inspired (as I believe every writer is) by my own experiences and obsessions.

Bad times make for good art. If you are one of the three people in America who grew up in a totally happy, trouble-free family where nothing bad ever happened, you may still overcome your handicap. But it’s going to be a challenge.

Addressing an audience of young people on a school visit a while back, I spoke about my own young years—my father’s drinking, my mother’s passionate obsession with raising me to be a writer, and the stress of it all. Afterward, a young girl came up to me, clutching her notebook to her chest.

“I always dreamed of being a writer,” she said. “But the worst thing that ever happened to me was when our cat died. What can I do?”

There’s hope, I told her. Life was likely to provide a few challenges along the way, if she gave it time. When misery falls short, look to imagination.

Part 1 | (Part 2)

By Joyce Maynard


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