"I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the house; and how good Mrs. West could have written such books and collected so many hard works, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment. Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb."~Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1816

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tell Me a Story

My Girl Scout day camp was situated in a tall, dense Virginia woods, in a remote corner of one of the further flung Washington D.C. suburbs. It was about a half hour’s bus ride to the camp from a church near my home where my mother dropped me off each morning. We girls bounced along on the bus, glad to be together and without parents, clutching our camp bags packed full with our brown-paper nestled lunches, our sit-upons, and extra changes of clothes. We wore bandanas as head coverings to keep off deer ticks. The “swaps” safety-clipped to our bandanas swayed as the bus rounded the final turn before it swung into the camp’s tree-shrouded parking lot. …

My daughter has gotten into the habit of asking me to tell her a story every night after hubby and I have prayed with her and kissed and hugged her and she is all tucked into bed. At first I thought she was stalling. I thought she wanted a few more precious minutes with me or hubby - whoever got stuck that night telling the story.

I shouldn’t say “stuck,” of course. Girlie lights up our days with her jumpy breathless inquisitiveness, but at 8:00 or 9:00 at night we want to be done. DONE. We want to have our time together and separately, to decompress, to tidy the house for the night, watch a little TV and surf a little Internet. We even actually talk a bit.

So at first the storytelling was a chore for me. I would hang my head for a few moments, trying to compose something: “Once upon a time…” I struggled, reaching out into nothing, into my tiredness, where no words introduced themselves to me. Then finally I remembered. I remembered that the stories my mom told me mostly were true stories about her growing up. She told the same stories over and over to me: how her parents planned and executed the family’s annual camping trip each year; how she and her brothers and sisters saw scuba divers on the beach one night and thought they were monsters. She also told me older stories that her mother had told her: how her mother’s mother had sewn a penny into the hem of her dress in case she ever needed it…

In the past year I have started to think of myself as a writer. I am writing non-fiction, essays and newspaper pieces, not fiction. Writing true stories always has been easier for me than making something up. I returned to writing this past year through the comfortable entry point of writing true stories about my mothering. There weren’t any frozen fingers over the keyboard. Writing about my mothering just poured out.

Now, in telling stories to my daughter, I realize I am training my writing muscles. The more Girlie asks for stories and I try to tell them, the more I remember of the stories that are mine for telling. All the details well up in me as I grasp for them in Girlie’s softly glowing room, details that perhaps would have forever gone missing if she hadn’t pleaded yet another night, “Tell me a story.”

The storytelling benefits Girlie too. I trot out words she may or may not know and she asks me what the words mean. She asks me questions about what happened in my stories. She adds her own stories where they dovetail with mine. She learns listening skills. She learns the art of storytelling.

The telling of the true stories, of when I was girl, of my courtship with hubby, of our days before kids, of last year, helps to orient me in my new role of mother/teacher and, I think, helps to orient Girlie too. It gives her the map of a girlhood.

I have re-read this wonderful quote at least a dozen times since I found it in Lisa Garrigues’s book Writing Motherhood (The book deserves an entire post.):

“Writing can be a crucial skill, like cartography. Everybody lives in the middle of a landscape. Writing can provide a map.” (Phyllis Theroux)

The same is true for storytelling.

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