When she’s in the right mood, and with the right people – both important qualifiers for this girl of mine – Katie is quite the storyteller.
There’s no telling when a story might come: it might be in the car as we run errands, it might come over lunch, it might show up in the hallway, the golden light of the late afternoon sun lighting her features as her sister rolls in the background. When it does, all else stops: the music is paused, the food left uneaten, the sister ignored as the words come tumbling out. More often than not, the story she relates is one we all just experienced together, but something in her needs to put words to what happened, to say, out loud, what she heard or saw or did.
I’m back at it, taking another writing MOOC by the University of Iowa, and, less than a week in, I’m realizing the same drive, the same need to put words to our experiences, exists in me, exists in all of us. We are all born storytellers, trying to find ways to define our world. The funny anecdotes reserved for parties, the cute tales about kids and grandkids, the birth stories and the war stories and everything in between: they’re all our attempts to narrate our world, to define what we see and hear and taste and smell and feel, to connect in some way to the people around us.
Sometimes, when she’s telling a story, Katie will stop midstream, her eyes narrowing, her brow furrowing, her lips drawn down in a confused frown.
“Why I do that, Mama?” she’ll ask. “Why I not want to play with the other kids?” “Why that make me sad?” “Why I not listen very well?”
I’ll smile and try to help her think about her own actions, though, often, I know very well the answer to her questions. It’s easier for me to see her motivations than for her to recognize them in herself.
“Why do you think you did those things, sweetheart?”
She’ll cock her head to the side – “I don’t know” – and I’ll give her words, hoping to help her understand herself. “Do you think you were tired?” “It might have been a day where you felt like playing by yourself.” “Sometimes, when others are unkind to us, it makes us sad.”
She’ll ponder for a moment longer, considering, then continue with her story. Sometimes, my words carry weight and she repeats them later. Sometimes, they don’t.
My writing course has just begun, but, already, it’s given me plenty of food for thought. The first week’s lectures focused on identity, on the ways we show the reader who a character is: through the world in which that character dwells and the community from which they come, through the things they say and do, through their inner dialogue. Though the intent is to think about such things as they apply to the people who inhabit our stories, I’ve contemplated these questions for myself as well.
Who am I, really, and how is my identity influenced by my family, my community, my world? How is it shown in my words and my actions, in the stories I choose to tell, both in writing and aloud?
Many times, Katie will be so excited about the story she’s sharing that she’ll stumble over her words, her voice stuttering as her mind tries in vain to keep pace with her mouth. She’ll double over in somewhat forced laughter over something she’s said, and her dad and I will share a grin over her bowed head. She repeats herself. She omits crucial details.
In other words, she is still deep in the process of learning the art of storytelling.
So am I.
She loves to narrate her world, Katie does, but she also clams up when asked directly about her day. She’s developed an ingenious tactic for diverting the attention from herself, and she employs it liberally: when Jonathan (or anyone else, for that matter) asks her about how her day was, she’s quick to turn the question back.
“How work today, Daddy?” she responds.
I know this is mostly an aversion tactic, a desire to not be in the spotlight, to not feel as though she’s performing. It has less to do with hearing others’ stories than it does with not wanting to or not being ready to share her own.
But I hope, too, that this sweet girl has learned (or is learning) a lesson I’m still trying to teach myself: that, in order to truly narrate our world, to do a good and proper job of putting words to our experiences, we have to make room for others to share their stories, too.