Storytelling Superheroes

Detail vs. Big Picture: Do you focus on the tiny detail at the center or how the bright yellow petals make you feel?

Detail vs. Big Picture: Do you focus on the tiny detail at the center or how the bright yellow petals make you feel?

Miles run today: 4.5

Hours school was delayed today: 3

Wintry accumulation: 0

My college best friend and one-time roommate had a superpower.

She could remember any conversation verbatim and recite it back 15 times to 15 different listeners in exactly the same way.

From this, you may infer that:

a.) she was an excellent student, recalling every single tidbit a professor uttered, and

b.) listening to one side of her multiple phone calls reciting the same experience over and over was both maddening and fascinating.

And Lord help you if you ever changed your mind. My whole life, things have come out of my mouth that I can’t recall five minutes later. And I might have a whole other opinion five days from now.

We would be standing in someone’s room, and I would say, “Wow, Julie, that is a gorgeous orange comforter you have!”

And my best friend would say, “You said last month that you hate the color orange. In fact, you said, ‘Please kill me if I ever wear, decorate or eat something orange.”


But probably true, given her total recall.

She had the kind of memory for minute conversational details that any writer would love to be able to access. On the stand at a Congressional hearing, she would be an ideal witness, reciting with perfect clarity words spoken by colleagues or friends nine years earlier. No “I cannot recalls” for her. No sirree bob.

Lyrics to every song written between 1975 and 1994? Not a problem.

One night, my best friend, a few other friends and I were heading out on the town. One of our friends fell down the concrete steps of our dorm headfirst, in slow motion, then popped up, unscathed, and proceeded to carry on a previous conversation. My best friend was able to tell the story of the exact song we had been listening to (“Divine Thing” by the Soup Dragons), The Slow-Motion Fall and all the way up to the last thread of conversation (a wild night in Shallotte).

I lived the experience, then heard about it at least seven times with the boring parts left in when retold to other friends, each time exactly the way it happened.

Over the years, I have decided that storytelling requires two things: a good memory and an ability to know what to leave out.

My mom is a natural storyteller, something I didn’t realize until I was grown.

Didn’t every child’s parents tell about the boy who came to school with no shoes? Or the scientist who walked through the chemistry lab carrying bubbling beakers while wearing full, Ebola-level-clearance gear?

My mom can recall names, dates and stories from each era of her life; she (mostly) edits out the boring parts. Unlike my college best friend, however, the details may be slightly editorialized or ahem, embellished.

My mom has some really good stories.

The difference between experiencing situations with my mom and my college best friend is that with my college best friend, I wished she would change it up a little each time she told the story. Just for the sake of her BFF.

And with my mom, well… I often felt that I didn’t live the same event. Or that maybe I had missed something.

We would go to a store, have to return something, and come home.

Here is how the dinner conversation played out as my mom explained the situation to my dad:

“So, I marched right up there to the desk and told the cashier (she was about 22 and couldn’t stop chewing gum; I wanted to say something to her, but I didn’t), ‘This hose doesn’t work. It is the most poorly engineered gardening implement I’ve ever seen. I demand my money back.'”

I would sit there, chewing my stir fry, wondering if my mom had maybe visited a different store than the one I had.

“And then she said, ‘Well…’ and I said, ‘If you can’t do any better than that, I will take my business elsewhere,’ and I slammed my hand down on the counter. That pretty much woke her up. She opened that cash register and refunded my money.”

My dad would say something like, “Good for you, honey,” and my mom would smile.

I would think: There was no slamming. There was no demanding. My mom was perfectly nice to the cashier. The cashier seemed like she wanted to give the money back.

But the stories always sounded pretty good, and the big picture was the same, so I learned from her that the actual details were less important than what you did to the story: the editing, the tone, the description, the way you felt about the event.

And I always wondered how I would be represented by the storytellers in my life, considering I didn’t remember my own utterances word-for-word as my college best friend did, and I did plenty of things to make my mom less than happy. She could have a field day telling stories about me.

Ultimately, I took a page from their books: I learned to remember, use the details I needed and editorialize when the mood hit me. Correction: I’m still learning.

What about you? How did you learn to experience, synthesize and share your stories?

35 thoughts on “Storytelling Superheroes

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    I’m not a good storyteller verbally. My mind is always ahead of my mouth, and what often follows is a jumbled mess. My husband is no better, as he starts a story in the middle, making the assumption that the listener has the same preliminary knowledge of the story’s subject as he does. This is a wrong assumption. What’s left is confusion on the listener’s part. But at least I know to limit my stories to one telling. My husband, bless his little heart, has a penchant for telling the same stories. Over and over again…

    • annewoodman says:

      I’m much better with the written word. Verbal? Yes, I agree, my mind is not at the same point as my mouth. Mess, yes. Oral storytelling is a very difficult thing to get right.

    • Amy Mak says:

      I’m also not a good verbal storyteller. My mother is and so is my mother-in-law…but they never write the stories down. And I do write my stories down, though it’s slow and constantly being revised, but I always wish we could combine the two superpowers. Your bff sounds fascinating and I love the way you told your story!

  2. In my experience, recalling events for storytelling purposes works best when none of those who witnessed the event are present. Otherwise, their urge to correct is almost irresistible.

    • annewoodman says:

      Mike, you make an excellent point. But I think it is a great way to learn from the masters. You learn how to edit, which points need clarification, and how people react to the same information that you witnessed. So very illuminating. ; )

  3. jmmcdowell says:

    I think it’s a safe bet that if five people witness the same event, you’ll get five different stories to describe it. A week later, those five stories might diverge even more. Five years later? We might not recognize that they’re even telling the same story.

    I try to vary the telling with the audience while keeping the basic facts of the story intact. How well I succeed is another story. 😉 And I hope my fiction writing gives the important bits well and entertainingly.

  4. 4amWriter says:

    I can be a pretty good storyteller if I have the right crowd. I don’t do well with a bunch of people I’m unfamiliar with. But if I’m with friends and family and even close acquaintances, I can let down my guard. I also tend to use very dramatic body language when I tell a story. Glasses of wine are not safe in my general area during these instances.

    • annewoodman says:

      Sounds like a fun party, then! ; )

      I think telling a story in person is different from telling a story on the page… but we can definitely learn from the in-person experiences and use them to inform our stories.

  5. Daryl says:

    Flying into storms, finding yourself one island over from one of the world’s worst earthquakes and wondering why the water is receding. Landing sideways, digging your car out in -9 temps, staying at the only hotel with a star (not hard to do, cable gets you that), a hotel that has carpet on the walls with rotary phones with 15 year old area codes, double homicide police tape around the hotel lobby, shots outside your room, homicide interviews at 1am and all hours away from cell phone coverage. Visits to diners where you are lucky to escape unscathed after accidentally insulting the waitress; juxtaposed to Caribbean sunsets, drives through Yellowstone Park, skiing, being invited to present at the Big White House, driving through mountain passes, eating and drinking at some of the world’s most wonderful restaurants. These are the things that generate story telling material for me. Oh, and as a scientist, it’s all in the details–the very specific details.

  6. My son sounds like your college friend, he remembers precise details of what happened and what was said. If I’m telling a story to someone about something that happened, he will correct me on the exact wording, which can kill the moment if it’s meant to be a funny story! I put it down to him having a scientific/technical mind, where being exact and precise is essential. He’ll also hold me to vague things I’ve said for years. We have conversations like this:

    HIM: Do you remember five years ago when you accidentally knocked my arm and I dropped my ice-cream and you said you would get me another one sometime to make up for it? You never have.
    ME: What are you talking about? You’ve had lots of ice-creams since then!
    HIM: Yes, but only general ice-creams that I would have had anyway. Never one specifically to replace that one.

    I have to be so careful what I say!

    • annewoodman says:

      He sounds brilliant… you need to be very careful, Vanessa. ; )

      My daughter remembers every detail of things like that. Ice cream I promised six years ago? Yes, definitely. Luckily, she can’t repeat entire conversations… I would lose my mind.

  7. I was a teller of tall tales when I was younger. It got me into trouble more than once…twice…okay a lot. I had to have a good memory just to keep my stories straight with who I told what. Thankfully, I learned my lesson, and started directing my abilities in less self-destructive areas.

  8. Melissa says:

    I have “detail keepers” in my house – the boys – and an embellisher – the hubs. It’s always interesting to watch them try to tell the same story over each other. Somewhere in the middle is actually what happened, so I let them tell the stories and I just sit back and laugh.

    • annewoodman says:

      I bet they are so charming when they spin their tales. I also bet that at least one of your sons will grow up to embellish a bit… it’s a storytelling skill that improves with age. ; )

  9. J-Bo says:

    My boyfriend is the same way as your BFF. He remembers everything exactly.

    And my mom ALWAYS gets stories wrong. Not because she’s trying to embellish, but I think because of poor memory. It bugs me to have to sit and listen to the details being told incorrectly.

    I really like your two criteria for good storytelling. Nice post.

    • annewoodman says:

      Thanks, Julia. Wow, I can’t imagine having a partner who remembers everything in so much detail. I recall with my BFF always feeling caught out… things fell out of my mouth, and later, I had a strong urge to recant. I hope you are more careful with your words, for your sake. ; )

  10. Holly says:

    Mom has the storytelling thing down pat. Somehow, she didn’t pass it on.

    I remember the cantor Mom worked with, way back in the early 90s, and how she would turn ordinary events into an epic, hilarious tales. She had the gift.

  11. I read an article in the paper a few days ago that told of a study that showed that creative thinking and lying go together. By implication, is the person who always tells stories accurately likely to be less creative?

    • annewoodman says:

      Hmmm. Good question, Carol. Journalism, the field I was trained in, requires you to report everything factually but to be creative about which details you present and how you write up the story. I also love narrative nonfiction like Seabiscuit and Unbroken, which required Hillenbrand to research, write factually, and all at the same time, tell a compelling, creative story.

  12. My mother-in-law is a lovely woman but, oh, my Lord, her storytelling skills are dreadful. I am reminded of that scene in the movie, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” when Steve Martin unloads on John Candy: “When you tell a story, here’s an idea, have a point!”

    In short, your Mom should be held up as an inspiration to everyone, everywhere. A little exaggeration never killed anyone — but it has improved many a story.

    • annewoodman says:

      Yes, very true. BTW, I LOVE Planes, Trains and Automobiles. LOVE. It’s a great example of a comedy with heart.

      • Of course you like planes Trains & Automobiles. You and I like the exact same things (except running; you can have that one).

        I am convinced we must share some DNA. I’ll bet you’re my real sister. The person who claims to be my sister is nothing at all like me.

  13. Robin Coyle says:

    HAHAHAHA. Do we have the same mom? I love a story with embellishment. The spice of life!

  14. Anne – what a great post. When I was reading it I was thinking how you were talking about storytellers with good memories who had different ways of telling stories and how you also seem to have a great memory for detail and tell a darn good story. Your timing is so great, and for me that’s what makes a good story teller. I point to the buildup in your post to that one word – awkward. The fact that it’s there on a line all on it’s own after you’ve drawn us in. Perfect! I’ve started teaching my workshops again this week. And last night I had a group of MA students that in a few weeks are going to start reading their work in front of agents and friends. I told them to remember that they are storytellers – it’s the journey through your tale I said. I make them imagine that they are driving a tour bus – sometimes they would want to go fast if the scenery on this stretch it a little meh. But sometimes they might want to go slow, and sometimes, if a really good bit it coming up they might want to give us advance notice – but not too specific so that it ruins the surprise.
    As for the photo at the top, I am drawn to the centre, and then I am drawn to the fact that I am drawn to the centre so I spend another few moments analising it!!

    • annewoodman says:

      How fun to be able to teach MA students! When I am among writer friends, reading their work, I am always astonished at the different visions, story lines and word choices they make… what a wonderful world. I would love to create a situation that we all experienced, then ask each writer to write a story about the event. I bet they would all be completely different–and that’s what I love.

      BTW, thanks for the compliments. I needed that today. ; )

      • Yes, I’ve always been interested in perspective – how it can differ from individual to individual, and also in ourselves depending on how we are feeling. As for the compliments – you do the work, I just act like a mirror and let you see it for how lovely it is. That’s also to do with perspective isn’t it? Sometimes we’re looking at things from an awkward angle and we can’t see the sunshine, and it takes someone else to point it out. Have a lovely weekend. I’m going offline till Monday. Need to be in the real world, fill up the imagination bank! xx

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