The Art of Storytelling
A slightly different version of this article article originally appeared at The Good Men Project, (here)[http://goodmenproject.com/families/aklap92033/]. I’m reposting it today as a reminder to myself. Sometimes, I get lazy as a parent and a person, and I fail to utilize the power of story, instead relying on simple rules and stated ideals. I need to remember how powerful story telling is; I think we all do.
On the Way
“Can I use my name?” she asks, “Without it being about me?”
“Sure, honey,” I tell her.
We are, as it always seems to be, running late to get her to school. The her in this case is my daughter, Sophia, who is half-way through her first year of kindergarten.
She asks, “Are we going to be late?”
But I don’t care. Not really. If I did, we’d be on time more often. I’m more concerned about spending this time with her, and letting her live into the joy of the story we are currently weaving together as we weave through the traffic on our route.
I have always told her stories—stories about herself, stories about faith, stories about her parents, and random stories. It’s the random stories, the completely fabricated and often on-the-spot stories, that capture my attention the most. This particular morning, it is a story of the plight of Penelope the duck with only one tail feather who has caught our attention. Penelope has already seen her friend, Henry, who is a pig, and is about to see her horse friend, whom my daughter has just named Sophia. Neither of these friends will prove able to help, but before we can solve the dilemma, we have arrived at the school.
Sophia (my daughter, not the just-named horse) is hesitant to get out of the car until she can be sure that I have used my phone to record a note of the story thus far and have promised her that we will resume this tale when I see her again later in the afternoon. The part of me that has never gotten over peer pressure wants to rush her out of the car, but the deeper part of me wants to just relish the moment and her imagination. I want her to know that the world we create together is as important to me as it is to her.
When I tell my children stories, I’m stepping into a long line of human culture obsessed with “meaning making”. We are creatures who shape and are shaped by narratives. We think of ourselves in stories from our past, and our future dreams are a story into which we have yet to live. We occupy our time with movies, novels, comic books, and video games—all mediums by which stories are shared. But before our people were able to write words or even draw lithographs, we told each other stories to shape our common life.
This meaning making used to be vested in the immediate community, the family group or tribe. This was the early editorial process, where stories were refined to their most important parts and the stories that were meaningless were discarded for new ones. Now, our stories are largely consumed en masse at the cineplex, curated not by the meaning they may have for viewers but by marketability. While many a great conversation or wondrous argument can be had around films, they are largely incapable of speaking into the particularity of situations in which we find ourselves.
For example, I once accidentally vacuumed the tail of my son’s beloved stuffed monkey. He was devastated. I was incapable of calming him until I began to tell him “The Epic of Adventures of Candycane the Monkey and His New Tail”. I began to tell him about how Candycane had gone in search of pirate treasure in the deep caves of Undathabed and had been attacked by the vicious Hoovasucka Goblins. They had taken his tail, but in the end he had gotten a new and better tail through a series of adventures. This story was made possible because I knew my wife could sew him a new tail, but it wasn’t the fact that a new tail could be had that was important in the moment. Rather, it was a distracting story in the moment that ended with the certainty that this would turn out well for Candycane and by extension my son, Quinn.
There is no ready made book or film that could have replicated that exact effect. But by weaving that tale about a tail, I was able to not only assure him that things would be ok but also be present with him in the pain of his moment. I was with him in a way that transcended my normal “please stop crying”.
The Gift of Presence
It is that presence which helps me grow into the kind of dad I want to be. My son and I are both technophiles; I’ve gathered that many kids in the iPhone age are. It is easy when I have him in the car with me to distract him with technology, but those aren’t the moments he will remember.
Once, we had to drive about an hour away to retrieve a desk from a Craigslist seller. On the way he got bored, but I needed my phone as my GPS for the trip. He had been telling me a story about his best friend, Micah, a very cool kid who is also five years older than Quinn. The age discrepancy makes their play necessarily one-sided on occasion, and even though Quinn can’t put words around it, somewhere he recognizes this fact.
So I told him a story about two knights who happened to be named Micah and Quinn. Quinn was the younger recruit who was brought along by Sir Micah to protect the princess. Sir Micah was brave and fierce; Sir Quinn was more prone to rely on his brains and creativity.
When the princess is captured and imprisoned by the evil wizard Wardorf, they must go in search for her. When they arrive at the tower where she is being held, they encounter a dragon in the midst of a cloud of smoke. Sir Micah is ready to dismount and slay the dragon, but Sir Quinn has a different approach.
Sir Quinn walks up to the dragon and introduces himself. He learns that the dragon’s name is Snufflepuss (no matter how many times I’ve since retold this story, Quinn and Sophia, always giggle and repeat his name a few times) and that the smoke is from an allergy to dragonnip that Wizard Wardorf has given him. Quinn gets some allergy reducing witch hazel from his bag and gives it to Snufflepus as they become friends. Ultimately, Snufflepuss enables them to reach the tall tower to save the princess and they all live happily ever after.
For a half hour, my son was enraptured as the story emerged between us, full of details and questions. Then we buy a desk. Then we tell the story again a few times, back to back, on the way home. We have really been together in this time, not just in the same space. What is more, I have hopefully planted a seed of subversive truth in his small mind. Hopefully, he will think that creativity rather than brute force is the better solution to challenges. Stories are always ready to subvert the norms and offer alternatives to life as we know it.
The Rest of the Story
When I get home from work on the day of the story of Penelope, after goofily dancing and being karate chopped in the crotch by my son (those subversive pacifism stories are really paying off), my daughter is ready to finish the story from our car ride that morning.
As I begin to tell the story from our stopping point, Quinn wants me to go back to the beginning. So I do, getting the gist of the story the same if not the details. As we sit together on the couch we discover that after Penelope the one-tail-feathered duck has failed to find help from either Henry the pig, Sophia the horse, or Quinn the cow, a great flood comes and wreaks havoc on her world. We also discover, much to our surprise, that having a singular tail feather actually makes for better steering in rough waters than multiple tail feathers. Penelope’s seeming shortcomings actually become the means of helping her friends and fellow ducks.
A Universal Power
There is hope, power, and joy in finding out that it is our imperfections that make us whole. By modern standards, the person who taught me about storytelling was far from the perfect source. My paternal grandfather, Papa Jim, didn’t finish high school and was a blue collar welder for all of his working career. He showed me without words that people don’t need a formal education to tell stories, all they need is love.
Papa Jim is not a complicated man, not really. But he loves the mythos of the West (though he wouldn’t call it that). We sat down across a table eating frozen snickers bars and he would tell me stories of gunfighters and cowboys and perseverance. His hands would move when he became particularly animated. In some ways, because I spent so much time looking at them, I know his hands better than I know my own. When he spoke about the harshness of the Old West, it was easy in his strong and calloused hands to believe every word.
His stories about the West helped me know my Texas roots. His time with me helped me know him in a better way. I believe that by telling stories with my children, I am letting them know my deepest parts and inviting them into a larger narrative of life.
Invited into Life Together
Storytelling, whether about families or fairies, is ultimately an invitation. Novels and films are asynchronous methods of communication where the interaction between creator and audience is broadened by time, space, and circumstance. They invite others in, but only at a distance. Storytelling is immediate and dialogical, at least when I’m riding in the car and trying to let my children shape the stories with me.
As a dad this is what matters most to me, that I am journeying with my children through life, not just telling them how it has to be. I’m providing them frameworks and asking them to join me in creating stories that will shape our lives together. My wife joins in, telling stories about how the cow who jumped over the moon trained for her feat. We have accepted the invitation to be together in a creative way. While it is not the immediate goal, I believe that when I invite my family to journey with me now, to help in the generative process, that when they have questions they will invite me to journey with them as well. And that long-term relationship is a story I want to tell and hear.