“Tell me about your day,” I prodded my son as I picked him up after school.
“In Spanish we just talked about our vacations.”
I nodded. I’d heard quite a few snippets of vacation stories today also. It was predictable on this first day back from break.
“Were you telling them in Spanish?” I pressed. When he confirmed it, I made a sound, more than a little impressed. “Tell me.”
He went on to relay the highlights, in English, of the story he had told for a full five minutes in class. I was on the same vacation he was. The highlights I shared today were not the ones he chose to regale his classmates with.
It made me think about the various stories I’d heard today from colleagues and even students.
-Woke up at 5, went to Florida, got this necklace I’m wearing
You’ve heard, or seen stories that go like this. It was a rambling string of seemingly minor details without development or purpose. To be fair, this one was in the tiny topic notebook of a second grader. But we’ve all heard the story that is really just a list: We went to the Louvre, walked up the Champs Elysee, ate crepes, and took the bus from the Arc du Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower. It was great.
I can’t really live in that story. It reads more like a to do list in past tense.
What I asked the second grader was: what about this trip is important to you? When she indicated that it was the necklace, I asked the follow up. Why? Then her story started to come together. Suddenly they got up so early because they were excited to visit her mom’s parents in Florida. And the necklace was special because it’s a gift for her birthday, today, that her grandparents brought back from Israel. Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere.
My son’s abbreviated version of his story did reveal what he felt was important. While I told of witnessing 2000 years worth of history in a single afternoon leaving me with a profound sense of awe, my son chose to highlight a pigeon attack on his father (complete with dramatization), the less than ideal bathing habits we inferred from smells in Paris, and, oh yeah, a few castles and things. He chose the things that left him laughing or scratching his head…and oh yeah, the castles. Although, when we got home yesterday he found short documentaries on some of the castles we’d visited and chose to watch them before bed. I know he’s interested in the history…
Which makes me realize that the stories we tell are also curated depending on our audience. For the kids in his Spanish class he chose to share anecdotes that would get a reaction. Apparently it paid off. They laughed at the pigeon and the B.O. For his English teacher, an avid Shakespeare fan, he related the story of our visit to the Globe Theater.
It was so nice! Really just great. Can’t believe how fast it went.
Some stories leave us with a vague impression, but nothing specific. Three times this storyteller gave me clues that the trip is worth hearing more about. I’m left wondering what was so terrific that made the time go so fast.
Since this was over lunch, a third colleague, who already knew she’d gone to Disney, asked where she stayed. Then more little tidbits started to trickle out.
Now that I think back on this story through the lens of audience, I’m realizing that there were several people in the teachers’ room when she shared this overall impression of her trip, not all of them her teammates or close confidants. Perhaps it was a matter of privacy– curating her story for those of us in the room.
But maybe since she’d been there and experienced the sights and sounds, she left them out assuming that we’d already know. I think sometimes our young writers (or those of us with a bit more experience) don’t write with a reader’s eye. As readers, we recognize when an author has painted a scene as if we’re there in it also. And we can be frustrated by (or simply uninterested in) stories where authors leave out key information. But we don’t always transfer that lens to our writing brain when the pen is in our hand.
Then there are the true storytellers. The ones who seem to breath stories. Forgive my paraphrased retelling of this one.
We just went to Six Flags for the day. [As though her story wasn’t as worthy]
We had the fast pass and we’d get off one roller coaster and jog back around to ride it again. And again. And again. Until actually my neck started to hurt a little from all the jostling.
Oh, on one of the coasters my friend had the fast pass in her pocket. She tried to hand it off to her mother who wasn’t riding, but the shoulder harness was already closed and she couldn’t reach.
Her mother said, “Just keep it. It will be fine.” [Here she gave a foreshadowing look.]
We were coming to the end, but still going pretty fast when…it flew out of her pocket! [The pregnant pause here left me wondering whether they’d gone the rest of the day without roller coasters.]
My friend stuck her arm up, like this, and grabbed it. But she couldn’t hold on and bobbled it. It landed on the part of the car where you stand to get in and out. Meanwhile the ride was still moving.
I was sitting two rows behind and I saw it, but I was so surprised I couldn’t react. I could only shout, “That’s our fast pass!”
The person riding in front of me reached out and snatched it from outside the car.
Can you imagine what would have happened if it hit someone?!
She had me worried. And relieved. I could see the critical moments as characters moved about trying to save the fast pass. And the reactions of all those who witnessed it.
This was the story of one time. I could see it, feel it, and I knew why to care about it.
She had another great story about painting closet doors.
Small moment stories about intense moments of action and conflict , or about adventures to far off places, can be tremendously powerful and effective but so can stories of otherwise mundane chores…when we storytell instead of summarizing or glossing over the details.
I learned a little bit about my colleagues today. I reflected a little bit on writing. And now I’m feeling the urge to get my vacation stories down as more than just a past tense to do list or highlights reel.
How was your vacation?