by Jerry Waxler
Most nights, my dad worked at his drugstore until 10 PM. On Wednesday, his evening off, he joined the family for dinner. Using the table as a pulpit, Dad’s voice swelled with excitement. “This guy walked in and showed me a half empty tube of ointment. He said it wasn’t working.” Then Dad laughed. “He wanted to return it. Can you believe it?” He slapped the table. My mother, sister, and I ate quietly, and when Dad paused we said “Umm,” giving him the desired reassurance that the other guy was crazy. Then he plowed on to another anecdote and another.
He seemed to enjoy filling us in on his day, but he didn’t ask me about mine. And if he had, I wouldn’t know what to say. My thoughts were wrapped up with solving algebra or calculus problems, so when someone asked me how things were going, I shrugged. “I dunno.”
For decades I assumed that since I had not grown up telling stories, I would never learn. Then in my fifties, I became interested in memoir writing. The problem was that without storytelling skills, I would never be able to write the story of my life.
Even though I knew it was too late, I figured there wouldn’t be any harm reading books about how to write stories. First, I studied Robert McKee’s popular tome called simply Story. This detailed guide for screenwriters shed light on the mechanics of the craft. Another book for screenwriters, Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey opened my eyes further, by comparing the structure of modern movies with the ancient Hero myth popularized by Joseph Campbell. Gradually I gained confidence that storytelling can be learned, and like Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, I demanded it as my inalienable right.
Through networking, I found a variety of writing groups. Some at my local library; some listed on the internet; some monthly meetings and some annual conferences. Gradually, my assignments for the classes began to interest me. I still needed to make them interesting to others.
Writing teachers want me to add sensory information in order to bring scenes to life. In my imagination, I revisit the kitchen table of my youth, trying to reproduce the experience. I feel myself leaning over my plate, wolfing down the boiled broccoli, mashed potatoes and baked meat loaf drowning in ketchup, squirming on the vinyl bench that wraps around two sides of the Formica table. Sounds echo sharply off the pale yellow and blue tile wall and linoleum floor. But what I really want to describe is not my sensory experience of the room. I want to finally express that high school boy’s feelings, all bottled up in math homework.
What am I thinking when Dad is telling his stories? I see that he is only checking with us to be sure we are listening. He dominates the room with his feelings, rather than giving us the psychic space to get in touch with our own. I wish I could say, “Hey Dad. What about me?” Now, by writing a memoir I can finally give that boy a voice.
Scene by scene, my memories converged into a story. But as they took shape, I encountered another problem. In addition to needing the skill to tell my story, I needed the courage. This is private material. No one needs to know this much detail about me.
I struggle to manage the fear of a recurring fantasy. I visualize a crowd of angry townspeople summoning me to a public trial. I’m onstage and they heatedly shout, telling me I’m arrogant for thinking I’m entitled to publish. My vivid fears of public speaking invade my mind, turning the solo act of writing into a terrifying spectacle.
Fortunately, Dad offered me an inspiration that helped me out of this jam. Later in his life, he grew frustrated with his limited communication skills, so he attended a Dale Carnegie public speaking course. They helped him improve his ability to communicate to an audience. With his newfound ability, he was elected president of his pharmacy group. He showed me that at any age, if you want to improve yourself along lines that seem impossible, jump in and try.
I followed his example. I joined Toastmasters, International, an organization designed to help people gain confidence in their ability to speak. After my first attempt to speak at Toastmasters, I ran away for a year, unable to face the humiliation. During that year I studied books about overcoming social anxiety and spoke with a therapist. Finally, I returned, and after an additional year of practice, I was able to share myself in front of a group.
My newfound courage to speak freed me from my fears about writing, too. I began to reveal my life stories in writing groups, and then I leapt past my local groups to the global reach of the Internet. I enjoyed feedback in person and online without feeling afraid.
Dad and I both discovered how to increase the reach of our communication. By doing so, we expanded our social horizons. Now, I can finally share my stories. And thanks to the swell of popular interest in reading and writing memoirs, I have found a whole community of fellow authors who want to share theirs. We’re collectively going beyond the dinner-table question “what did you do today?” Together we are answering the broader question, “what did you do this life?”
Describe the way storytelling was handled in your house or community.
Write a scene in which you felt overwhelmed and excluded by someone’s storytelling.
Write another scene in which storytelling felt warm, inviting and empowering.
Write about the first time you felt proud to have written a story.
This is a rewrite of an article published April 17, 2009 titled The Birth of an Adult Storyteller.
More memoir writing resources
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