To improve your memoir, break down the code

by Jerry Waxler

My dad owned a neighborhood drugstore in north Philadelphia, and on the nights he was able to make it home for dinner, most of the conversation centered around him telling us about the menagerie of characters who streamed through the store and gave him endless raw material. We sat and dutifully listened, but since there was no rule about equal air time, I grew up without having picked up even a smattering of skill to help me tell stories of my own.

In fact, I spent quite the next several decades story-less, feeling awkward about reporting on what happened to me. And though I didn’t realize it at first, I gradually noticed that my lack of storytelling was cutting me off from people. Stories are how we tell each other who we are, and so without stories, I felt isolated. Once I noticed how important it was to be able to tell stories, I set out to learn in adulthood what I had not learned as a child.

It turns out that with a little digging you can find storytellers who will teach you their craft. For example, Charles Kiernan, coordinator of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, has been studying story telling for years. For him, storytelling is a performance art. He looks like Mark Twain, including the flowing mane of hair and bushy mustache, and when he dresses in period costume, it’s like listening to your own copy of Mark Twain. In addition to the performance and folklore aspects of storytelling, he’s also interested in creating them.

Here’s the simple, powerful lesson he shared with me, that he’ll be teaching in more detail at the Augusta Heritage Folkarts Festival in West Virginia, July 8-13, 2007. Say you’re sitting around at a family gathering, and the older adults start telling stories about Uncle Bob. The ones who knew Uncle Bob start laughing, and everyone else glazes over. They never met Uncle Bob, they didn’t know his pranks, or the sadness underneath his smile, so the story isn’t working for them. The problem is that so many family stories contain codes. The people who know the code can make sense of the story, and those who don’t know the code are left out.

It’s like that old joke about a newly convicted criminal in the penitentiary. Someone down the cellblock screams out the number “68” and all the other prisoners crack up laughing. The newbie asks what is going on, and his cellmate says, “We’ve heard these jokes so many times, we just tell them by the number.” It’s the same with family stories. As storyteller Charles Kiernan, coordinator of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, explains it, say you’re at the dinner table celebrating a holiday with your extended family. You start telling stories about Uncle Bob, and all the adults who knew Uncle Bob crack up, while the kids who don’t remember Uncle Bob glaze over. Why are they staring at the ceiling, waiting for an excuse to get away from the table?

Kiernan’s family-oriented workshop will teach students to slow down and instead of telling stories in code that only insiders understand, they’ll learn to tell the story in a way that can be understood by listeners who never met Uncle Bob. The trick is to describe him in more detail. What did he wear? What was his hair like? What room do you picture him in? Sit down with someone who didn’t know him and describe him in as much detail as possible, so your listener could pick Bob out of a crowd.

If you want to tell a story, look closely at your language, and “unpack” it, laying out its content for everyone to appreciate. With a little learning you can turn the joke known only to the old inmates into a joke you can share with kids and strangers.

While this advice sounds simple, I consider it to be brilliant. For one thing, it acknowledges an important fact. Just because we think we’re telling a good story doesn’t mean the listener is hearing a good story. That in itself is a powerful piece of information, because most of us think that when we tell about events, we are doing the best possible job sharing the story. It turns out, the storyteller plays a crucial role, shaping a bunch of events into something worth listening to. Once we realize this fact, we can start looking for tricks to give our stories more impact.

Secondly, the message is brilliant because it is extraordinarily fundamental, sweeping across all aspects of storytelling. For example, I was preparing to write a description of my years in college, and was hoping to explain how the music of the times influenced my feelings. I could hope that by simply mentioning that the Beatles were intense or important, I might be able to convey what I was feeling, since everyone really knows about the Beatles. But I remembered Kiernan’s advice about avoiding code words, and thought how that applies to those icons of the sixties. If I just mention the word, “sixties” or “Beatles” I might hope everyone understands what I mean. But they will only get what they think, not what I think. That’s like the prisoner saying “68.” I have to tell a story.

So how can I unpack my thoughts and feelings about the Beatles? I’ll talk more about that in my next blog entry, and put into a scene what I mean by the coded word “Beatles.”

2 thoughts on “To improve your memoir, break down the code

  1. Great post. This principle applies to writing stories as well as telling them. A couple of days ago at a writing group I attend, one of the members read a story that included a one-sentence reference that read something like, “by happy coincidence a salesman offered us a great deal on a new car, and we drove it to (the next stop on an extended vacaton).” The obvious response was, “What’s the story there? Tell us more!” It took ten minutes of animated story-telling to fill in that blank. The original story was pretty dry bones. The inset fleshed out those bones and really juiced them up. “Next time be sure you include the juice,” someone advised him.

    In either case, we as authors of the tale forget that we need to fill in the details for our listeners or readers, who are not looking at the panorama we see in our minds.

  2. As Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “easy reading is damn hard writing.” It seems so much of the writing process is stripping it of its “codes” and the internal dialogue held inbetween the lines. Particularly when those stories revolve around personal events. As Ms. Lippincott so wisely noted above, authors tend to forget that readers can only see the small vision through the pinhole we provide them, not the entire panorama. Perhaps this is why writing memoirs is such an excellent way to flesh out our own personal panorama, and by seeing the entire mountain range, we can provide our readers at least one good snapshot of the mountain. Or maybe I just need more caffeination before writing…

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