I Believe in Stories
Every night when I was a child, my father would tell me a goodnight story. He told stories about giant catfish, about catching monkeys with coconuts, about meeting Franklin Roosevelt, about riding cavalry horses on wild charges while he brandished a saber.
To be a storyteller is to see the world in a particular way. As my father experienced life, he took the messy stuff of daily event and found the stories hiding in it like nuggets of gold in the debris of a stream bottom. He’d identify the beginning and ending of a story and then sometimes tease the truth into taking a shape that told well.
No experience was too harrowing to remember or too embarrassing to relate, just as long as it made a good story. Events that refused to fit the pattern of a story were forgotten as if they never happened. For all practical purposes, they had not. We are our memories.
I now see storytelling as a holy activity. To tell a story is to perceive meaning in our lives. To tell a story is to understand mundane activities in the context of our deepest values. Storytelling connects us to ethics, to beauty, to history and to each other. Stories have unique powers to preserve memories and organize experience in ways that delight and instruct us all.
There was a time when I envied so-called primitive societies for the way all their activities were imbued with myth and legend, giving each person a sense of being plugged into a matrix of shared value, connected to the sacred. I now understand that stories—the stories I heard and the stories I told—can function in much the same way.
When my daughter Molly was a child, each evening I told her goodnight stories. I told stories about her birth, about the beagle that thought she was a cat, about the time I infuriated Harry Truman, and of course I repeated the stories my father once told me.
The stories I shared with Molly carried an unspoken subtext: You come from these people. You are connected to them as much by stories as by the blood that pulses through your body. You are somebody in particular, and who you are is something you can best understand through the stories you carry in your heart.
In a society of people who fret endlessly about personal identity, Molly knows just who she is. She is the daughter of a storyteller and the granddaughter of a storyteller before him. Go where she will in the wide world, Molly will remain rooted in a rich bed of stories, and I believe the heights she might someday reach will be made possible by the depth of those roots.
I believe in stories.
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