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?


Jokes Aside… Let Me Tell You a Tale

Orange you glad I didn’t say apple?

Words written in my novel so far: 22,633 (yay!)

Bunnies spotted on our Friday long run: 2

Jokes I remember: 1

Do not ever ask me to tell you a joke. I am Queen of the Non-Joke Tellers.

If you tell me a joke, I will laugh. Then I will promptly forget said joke. You can tell me the same joke a week from now, and I will remember I’ve heard it, but I won’t remember the punch line.

My dad passed the Non-Joke-Telling Gene down to me. Once, back in the ’80s, he went to lunch with some co-workers and started telling a long, involved joke that included Pollocks (folks, it was the ’80s… and we’re part Polish, so sue me) and a vacation at sea. When he got to the punch line, he couldn’t remember it.

Smart phones weren’t invented yet, so when he got back to the office, he had to call my mom. Then he had to walk around the office and tell everyone the part he’d forgotten.

Never let it be said that I don’t learn a lesson. When I realized I had the same faulty gene, I gave up on joke telling. I was nine.

Jokes are pat, they are written by someone else, and they have a manufactured feel, I tell myself.

But for us writers, there is much to be learned from both jokes and seat-of-the-pants storytelling. There is pacing, the spinning out of details to keep the reader interested, and the payoff at the end.

On the other side of the family, my mom’s side, there is the Storytelling Gene. I pray I have it. It might make up for the fact that I can’t tell a joke to save my life.

My great-grandmother had a head for details. She could tell you how much she paid for a metal sieve back in 1937. She could tell you a story about a train wreck that happened on the tracks just across from her house forty years earlier. And she had the sweetest chuckle when something tickled her fancy.

Her daughter, my grandmother, could meet someone and find out her deepest family secrets within the space of six minutes. Some people might call this gossip. They are the same types who pooh-pooh People magazine and forget to ask you about how your cousin’s father’s sister is doing after her lobotomy.

But my grandmother was an unofficial reporter years before I got my journalism degree. People wanted to tell her things, and she collected their stories lovingly like she collects glass and ceramic Christmas trees.

She can tell stories about learning to drive a car across the fields near her home when she was only ten years old that will leave you giggling. She tells about chewing gum in school, getting caught, and then sticking another piece of gum in her mouth before the teacher could turn around again. She can make me laugh until I cry.

Every day brings new stories for my mom. When I was growing up, the dinner table was a story-telling proving ground after her days in the chemistry lab or as a customer service rep at the bank, or later, as a piano teacher. Think of the most boring job possible. If my mom worked there, I promise you, she could tell you riveting stories about her fellow employees and the work day.

I have much to learn, sensei.

But years later, I watch someone as he tells a joke. I listen when she tells a story about a mundane, workaday event. How do they do it? What makes one story work and another fall flat?

In the meantime, do you want me to tell you a joke? No?

I’ve got a great one:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


No? You want me to stop? You already know how this is going to end, don’t you?

Well, then, let me tell you a story…