Wendy … was just slightly disappointed when he admitted that he came to the nursery window not to see her but to listen to stories. “You see, I don’t know any stories. None of the lost boys knows any stories.”
“How perfectly awful,” Wendy said.
— J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1928)
Wendy’s right. Can you imagine how terrible a world without story would be? Can you even remember a time before story was a part of your world? I can’t. My earliest memories are of my mother reading to me from big books of Bible stories and fairy tales. I can remember following my grandmother through her house, begging her to tell me about “olden times” as she washed dishes, dusted, cooked lunch, and completed all the other seemingly endless tasks that were part of her daily routine. Stories of her girlhood as one of five motherless children on a farm were as fascinating as the stories my mother read to me. My grandfather’s stories were usually connected to photographs. My favorite involved my mother as a big-eyed infant in a long dress and bonnet in the arms of her schoolteacher grandmother.
I can still recall how excited I was when I could read stories on my own. I had an even greater sense of accomplishment when I wrote my first story with a fat, red pencil in a wide-lined tablet and “published” it by reading it aloud to my suitably impressed younger sister. It was all about Sue Brown who ran away to visit a big-city department store and rode the escalator and looked at evening gowns. The character’s name reflected my desire to have a monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon name rather than the different name I possessed. Sue’s propensity to runaway seeking adventure was also autobiographical, although my own trips were limited to the mom-and-pop store across the highway, and Sue’s virtuous promise to henceforth always obey was far removed from my furious objection to being deprived of the candy I had purchased.
This week I’ve been working at recapturing the simple joy of storytelling. I can get so caught up in the crafting of the text, in the struggle to find the proper texture, the right weight, the exact colors for this tapestry of words I’m weaving that I forget story is the beginning and end of what I’m doing. I like what novelist Amy Tan said: “Writing is an extreme privilege but it's also a gift. It's a gift to yourself and it's a gift of giving a story to someone.”
"The Long Way Home," my completed romance novel, started with a single image of a young woman standing, gazing out a window as she wept. Then, there was a voice that said, ‘I’m Max and I can tell you why she’s crying.” I started writing to discover the answer to that why and to share my discovery with others. Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and more than 20 other novels, speaks of the “inner and outer story.” “The outer story,” says Hoffman, “is what happens every day, the things that keep you turning the page to find out.” The “inner story” is the heart that is revealed as the writer moves through the writing process. Hoffman posits that it is the promise of discovering the core of the story that motivates the writer to write. Just yesterday I discovered that forgiveness lies at the heart of my three stories. All of my primary characters have to learn to forgive themselves as well as those who have hurt them.
That discovery thrilled me. The more I think about it, the more I like Hoffman’s idea of discovering the essence of the story. I think it connects in significant ways to Amy Tan’s claim that the stories we tell are first gifts to ourselves. That first story I wrote that filled me with such delight and pride was a gift to me before I shared it with anyone else. I want to get back to such moments.
Some have suggested that writers are either predominantly storytellers or wordsmiths, but I’m not persuaded. However enchanted a writer of fiction may be with words as tools, I think the story and the desire to share it come first. I want my prose to be lucid and lyrical. I want my voice to be fresh and distinctive. I want my plot to be tight, my setting vivid, and my characters compelling. But I want even more for the story to be powerful enough to pull the reader into the world I’ve created and find it as vital as a dream, as cherished as a memory. C. S. Lewis famously said, “We read to know we are not alone.” John Steinbeck suggested that we write for similar reasons: “We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel- ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.’ You’re not as alone as you thought.” One of the best books I know about story is Barry Lopez’s Crow and Weasel, a tale of the journey of two young Sioux braves. In it, Lopez writes, “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed.” See—there’s the double gift metaphor again, and through the giving comes the connection that reminds us we are not alone. For me, that’s basic, and I have recommitted to getting back to the basics.
What are the first stories you remember? If you are a writer, have you discovered the heart of your story? If you are a reader, what stories speak most powerfully to your heart?