Monday, May 25, 2009

True Confessions...or not

For all of those serving in the armed services, today or in the past, and to the families who support their loved ones who go into harm's way, our deepest gratitude. Happy Memorial Day.
Before starting the round table discussion, we want to remind you of our May giveaway. To win two copies of Zora and Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney (one for you and one for a friend), just make your first comment on Novel Matters and tell us it's your first time. That will put your name in the hat, and the hat is empty! You are amazingly brilliant and articulate people but a little shy about admitting this is your first time to comment. Come on, we don't
bite. And if you're a little shy, this book is worth stepping out of your comfort zone. You'll love it. And thanks to the people at Cook Publications for providing the books. BTW, the giveaway is this Friday. It really is time to speak up.

I'm preparing to speak at a library event. The organizers were especially interested in the origins of my storytelling life. I know what they want to hear, that I checked stacks of books out of the library every week. Yes, I certainly did that, but the deeper I dug for the truth of my storytelling roots, the library faded in importance.
I told my first story while standing in my mother's sunny kitchen. She asked, "Patti Ann, have you been in the strawberry patch?" How did she know? To admit such a crime meant punishment. As she scrubbed at my face, I told her that I was wearing wipstick. (I was only three years old!) "Really?" she said. "Yes, I'm going to church, and I want to look pretty, just like you." I don't remember if the strong arm of the law came down on me that day. But this wasn't my last "story." All through school, I embellished my humdrum life to school chums and strangers. I also used my storytelling skills to stay out of trouble, and sadly, I was very, very good at it.
This is just one of the reasons I love Jesus so much. He took something from my life that kept me dangerously close to disaster
(you know, sin!) and redeemed it. He turned my ashes to beauty!
Okay girls, now you know. My storytelling origins are dark indeed. What's your story?

I've always had an artistic streak. From as far back as I can remember, my free time was spent with a drawing pad and pencil, and, typically, 17 Magazine, because I always drew the models' faces. Then as a high school senior I added oil painting, again always painting faces.
I loved reading, and I wrote typically bad 60's poetry in high school. But I think my storytelling came from my love of music. Music has always been a huge part of my life, probably because my dad was a singer/musician. I was always touched by the stories told in the songs he sang.
In 1970, Joni Mitchell came out with "The Circle Game," one of my all-time favorite songs, which tells a beautiful story about the cycle of life. Then in '75 Janis Ian's "At 17" was released. I was already married with 2 babies, but I related deeply to that song, felt like it was my story, and was impressed with how Janis could tell such a moving story with such an economy of words.
Those two songs more than any others stirred a desire within me to be a storyteller. I'm not a musician, so songwriting was out, but 11 years after I first heard "At 17," I began to write my first novel. I fell in love with writing then and have yet to fall out. I may never be as effective a storyteller as Joni and Janis, but they certainly give me something to shoot for.

Want my full attention? Just tell me a story. I'll sit dreamy eyed, at attention until you tell me "the end". From what I can tell, I've always been that way - pulled in by story. When I was about nine or ten, my best friend, Tracy, turned to me and said, "You should be a comedian." At first I was insulted because I didn't know what a comedian was, but it sounded close to custodian, and I knew what that was. But she was the first person to tell me I was funny.
I married my love for telling stories with acting. Even as a kid, I could memorize huge swaths of dialogue. I acted out movie parts and plays in front of my bedroom mirror. By the time I got to high school, acting was the central theme of my existence. With it came writing. I wrote scenes, monologues, stage directions, you name it. Around that time, my parents bought a typewriter. I hogged it for weeks, pounding out a very bad romance novel my mother adored.
I suppose what I lacked in skills I made up for with enthusiasm. I simply loved story, in all it's forms. It is the best vehicle we have to transmit understanding, to share ideals, to give voice to our fears and, in the end, banish them. To this day, I use story in everything I do. When counseling a family in crisis, or speaking to a group of women, or playing with my kids, the I use the power of storytelling to help us all understand our lives a little better.

Funny you should ask. I just attended an excellent local musical production of one of my favorite childhood stories, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. My mother bought me the book when I was nine. We had just read together Winnie the Pooh, and I still think A.A. Milne is one of the best ever at using language to enchant the reader. But The Little Prince was my first exposure to a tale with a level of depth and significance. It offered all the story-stuff I was used to: outlandish characters, fantastical adventures, and a moral ("It is only with the heart that one can see rightly..."), sitting nicely on top so I pluck it up and go outside to play. But when I got outside, I had this feeling that there was something more the story was saying, something just beneath the surface. So I read it again, and again, and again. I'm still reading it. Each time I do I come away with something more, and each time I have the feeling that there is more still to be found, if I just keep looking.

That book had a lot to do with the kind of writing I would love all my life, and the things that I would value most in my own writing.

You want confession? I'll give you confession. When I was newly married and we were eating barbequed chicken backs because that was the only cut of meat we could afford, a fellow writer told me you could make good money writing -- are you ready for this? Confessions. The kind that go in true confession magazines. Well, I had nothing lurid or racy to confess, I told that person. Didn't matter. All you had to do was write a really lively story in the first person (with a pseudonym) and if it was accepted you had to sign an affidavit saying that something like that had actually occurred to someone in real life. Somewhere. Of course my research-hound nose started twitching and I unearthed articles about women who'd done what I considered really shocking things. One article was entitled, "My Neighbor, the Welfare Queen." Thank goodness nobody ever bought a single one. It was decades later before I decided to try my hand at fiction again.

Funny, though, how Latter-day Cipher has become as much a confession of my heart as the non-fiction I have written all my life.

Okay, two confessions. The first is the horrible, terrible, no good speech I wrote for my high school graduation on the topic of scholarship. I mean, who thinks up these topics? The worst part is that I thought it was pretty good until I got up to give it in front of my whole graduating class. You know how your house can look perfectly clean until you have company, and then you see the cobwebs and feel the grit under your feet - maybe I should stop. Well, as I gave the speech, it occurred to me how truly bad it was. 'Nuff said.

The second one is that the very first thing I toyed with writing was Lord of the Rings fan fiction, before there even was fan fiction. I'm talking YEARS ago, before the movies came out. I had finished reading them and just didn't want to give up the characters and the magic of the place, so I wrote alternate endings. They are destroyed - more really sappy stuff. I hope my storytelling has moved on significantly since then.


Patti Hill said...

Phew! Thanks for your honesty, girls. A fellow writer has promised to destroy my file of first-attempts, and since she's such a good friend, I'll do the same for the event of our untimely deaths.

Now, be brave! Tell us about your earliest storytelling. And if this is your first time to comment, for heaven's sake, let us know. We really want to give away these books.

Lori Benton said...

My first storytelling experience came at the age of 9, and it did not come about through the best of motives. Completely out of the blue, my best friend wrote a story. She and her mother proudly showed it off to me. I was stunned at the very idea. You mean, a person could write their OWN story? We weren't limited to the school and public library? We could, like, make up characters and plots ourselves?

I was chagrined that my BF had figured this out ahead of me. I was the Big Reader, after all. Not her.

I don't remember what her story was about, only that it featured an Indian girl called Red Feather. Inspired and determined, I set out not only to write my own story about an Indian girl (called Yellow Feather--take that, BF!) I had to illustrate it too.

Patti Hill said...

Lori: Thanks for stopping by! I love your story. My BF was the reader, too. I was too busy galloping around the neighborhood on my imaginary horse. I didn't write down my first stories, besides the flowery lies I told. I inserted myself into glorious daydreams where I was stronger, more athletic, prettier, a movie star, the hero on a white horse no one else could ride. Maybe that's why I write in first-person. It's a habit! Hmm.

Steve G said...

I have no stories - I was a straight up funny-haired kid devoid of all things that would later need confessing. Now, my twin brother on the other hand... the stories I could tell about him...

Oh, and if you are not a first time commenter, and still want to win a book, get your spouse or your friend to make a comment. I expect they would rather enjoy the experience!

Nichole Osborn said...

Like Patti I too had a knack for "story telling" mainly to save my skin. I thank the Lord for saving me from my sin and using it to "tell stories" legitimatly.

Elizabeth McKenzie said...

My first attempt at telling a story was before I could even read. I just looked at the pictures and made up a story, kind of like today.

BTW, this is my first post.

Bonnie Grove said...

Hey Elizabeth! Welcome! I love your post because as I read it I could see my daughter (who is 6) snuggled on the sofa "reading" a book by making up her own stories. She does it all the time as she is still working her way to becoming a reader.
Thanks so much for you comment!

Kathleen Popa said...

Elizabeth, like you, I was "writing" fiction before I could write.

Lori, I suspect a lot of stories are written to "answer" other stories. I like to think of it all as one long (thousands of years long) stimulating conversation. Here's to Red Feather, and here's to Yellow Feather!

Nichole, I was always a really bad liar when I was a kid, except in one place. I was Catholic, so every Sunday I dutifully took my turn in the confessional. Trouble was, I never could remember what all I'd done wrong that week, so I just made stuff up. The priest never suspected.