Over dinner this week, my sister-in-law (Calla’s mother, and a fellow writer) and I discovered that we share a common fear: the bedtime story.
“Tell me a story,” Calla will say on nights when I babysit. She’ll look at me imploringly, tucked in her bed alongside her stuffed warthog and plush pygmy lemur.
This is when the cold sweat begins. “Will you help me tell it?” is my response, every time.
“Okay. Great. Once there was. . . a banana,” I’ll start, choosing my words haltingly. “A banana named Jim.”
Usually, at this point, Calla is staring at me, eagerly awaiting what spellbinding fate might befall an anthropomorphized fruit. “And then what?”
“Hmm. And then. . . and then. . .” I’ll stammer, before inevitably admitting defeat. “You know what? That’s a great question. Why don’t you tell me?”
In the tenth grade, I wrote a short story for my English class that was told from the point of view of a man on death row. The same year, I wrote another piece from the perspective of a little boy who heard voices. I followed that with yet another, about an inner city teenager who’d been kicked out of school. (Clearly, at fifteen, I was interested in exploring the darker side of the human experience.)
I received good marks on these stories at the time; still, they’re pieces that embarrass me now—full of vague details and street slang I didn’t know how to use.
These were stories I didn’t know how to tell.
Today, as a writer, I still doubt my story-telling abilities. Essays, I can handle. Interviews are no problem. But a story is a different animal.
I once overheard a college classmate of mine wonder aloud, “do you have to live like a rock star in order to be a good writer?”
At the time, I understood exactly what he meant. We were being told in our workshops to write what we knew. But in order to tell good stories, did this mean we had to live them first?
There came a time last summer when, in the midst of a sort of quarter-life crisis, I decided to prioritize adventure above (almost) all other things. Whenever I was invited out—or presented with a new experience, big or small—I resolved to say yes.
As I’ve shared with you at times here, the results of that decision have often come at the expense of comfort. I can’t think of a more tumultuous time in my life, but then again, I can’t think of a period more exhilarating, either.
My friend Megan sent me a quote yesterday morning from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which reads, in part: “to live. . . is to acquire the words to a story.”
Yes. At the very least, what I’m doing now is collecting stories. “Sometimes,” I told Megan,” I’m so interested in certain emotions that I’ll put myself in situations—even if they’re uncomfortable—just so I’ll know what they feel like.”
If I live them, I’ll be able to write about them. Share them. Use them.
Whether or not this will improve the quality of my bedtime stories remains to be seen.