Tell stories for more thankful holiday gatherings

by Jerry Waxler

The holidays bring together a mélange of generations, family units, and significant others, bonded by blood, marriage, love, and shared life experience. Then why did I feel more dread than joy? I didn’t understand my own reactions to the holidays until I started writing family stories, and then the answer leapt off the page. There were just too many stories in one room. The chiefs in their own homes are now guests. Siblings connect in a secret code that sounds foreign to their spouses. Fully grown adults behave like children, and kids who are ordinarily the cutest, now must compete with even smaller ones. The clash of roles has always confused me, and I’m not alone. Many people struggle to sort out their feelings about holiday gatherings.

Now that I see the problem, I’ve worked out a solution. My interest in storytelling helps me focus on the interesting, curious, or historical features of my clan. By looking for their stories, I become engaged with people more intimately, and my curiosity reveals who we are as individuals and as a group. I’m not claiming writing is a panacea, but it has helped me stay on top, like a surfer riding the energy rather than falling in. Here are some suggestions for applying this strategy to your own holiday gathering.

Connect with each person by writing scenes
Before the holidays, in your imagination go around the table, visualizing each person. Watch the memories that play through your mind, and when a scene jumps out, describe it. Don’t worry how important the scene is. Even if it seems trivial, write about it. What did you see? Who was there? What happened first? Then what? Your writing exercise will open you to a deeper channel through which you can learn about your relationship.

For example, I try to imagine my father at the holiday dinner. At first, all I see is a tangle of people eating, drinking, and getting through the hour. Then I shift to a different family gathering, Passover which combines a feast with a ritual service. My father tells us to read a passage from the book of instructions. Then we do things like dip a toothpick into radish and taste it. While the book provides stage directions, my father is the director. This is interesting. I’m not accustomed to seeing him in that role and find this memory soothing. By writing that scene, I cast my father in a light that would help me relate to him at the Thanksgiving meal.

If you feel anger towards someone, that’s more problematic. The initial temptation is to complain, but that only makes you feel worse. Step back and with your storytelling curiosity look for scenes that evoke a range of emotions, such as drama, passion, or pleasure. If you suspect it’s going to sound like another round of ranting, continue brainstorming until you light on a memory that sparks your interest. Then tell the story. Describe the external circumstances, the furniture, the smells of cooking, the sound of voices or clatter of dishes. Out of the scene will emerge a more complex picture of your connection with this person. The exercise may help you develop a more sophisticated container into which you can pour your heart.

Your interest in people changes the dynamics
Family preconceptions remain frozen in time, so older relatives see younger ones as if they are children, and younger ones see elders as the powerful parental figures they once were. These prescribed roles force interactions into a groove that confines each of you into only a sliver of your whole personality. Break past these limits by telling people you are writing about their lives. Ask the questions you will someday wish you had. As you sit there with paper and pen or tape recorder, eyes wide with interest, the focus shifts. Now you are empowering people to be themselves, in toto, opening a door into their real lives, not just their ritualized position in the clan. Even though you are talking about the past, your interactions in the present become more authentic and intimate.

To evoke vivid responses ask for sensory descriptions. If you can get them to wade through a pile of leaves as they walked to elementary school, or describe the dresser and mirror in their childhood bedroom they will probably become energized with fresh stories, rather than the routine ones they usually tell. Test the question by posing it to yourself. If it stirs up memories, there’s a good chance it will work on your relatives. If it leaves you blank, try something more specific. If the atmosphere during the larger gathering is not conducive to reverie, pull your interviewee aside before or after the meal and talk in a more private setting.

Write about those you miss
The holidays are a ritual time to come together as a tribe, but what about the people you won’t be with? They might be cut off by a feud, a death or divorce, or they are on a battlefield, in a hospital, a nursing home, or a prison. Longing is itself a form of connection that links people at a distance. Stories go further by reminding you of the love and joy and other qualities about them that are the reason you miss them in the first place. Write about a peaceful time, or a peak time, or any story that awakens your connection.

By looking for fresh ways to describe the people around you, you will gain poise not only for the day. You’ll generate insights and written passages that help you through the year. And you just might find some lovely bonding opportunities with the people in your life.