Sunday, October 14, 2007
by Lynn York
I have just returned home from the Southern Festival of Books. This is always a fun weekend, with readers and writers all running from session to session—in the autumn sunshine of Nashville this year—listening to poets here, short stories there, next year’s best sellers, undiscovered debuts. And outside on the plaza or in the hotel bar or at the authors’ reception, there is talk, endless talk. You can’t get writers to shut up. Someone’s always got a story going, one leading to another. After a few cocktails, the voices become entwined, and I can sit on a bar stool and hear parts of four or five tales.
Many writers will tell you that they were raised in a family of storytellers. My friend and fellow writing group member Pam Duncan wrote about this a few blogs back. I really wish I could’ve met that grandmother of hers, though after reading Moon Women, I do feel as though I’ve met some version of her. I am envious that Pam grew up around such a storyteller. I was not so lucky. Now I did have a very nice childhood, nothing to complain about at all. My parents fed me, they read me books, they taught me to read, but storytelling was not part of our tradition. I was an extrovert born in a family of introverts.
To my family’s dismay, I have always had a natural tendency to tell everything I know. The man who drove my kindergarten carpool warned my parents that they should not say anything to me they didn’t want repeated on the way to school. I myself didn’t see why in the world everybody shouldn’t know I was going to get a new sibling. This incident, and maybe a few others, dried up all the good dinner conversation.
After that, I got the feeling everyone around me had great stories to tell, only no one was telling them to me. This turned me into a child spy. I hid in the bushes under the kitchen window and lay awake at night with my bedroom door cracked, hoping to overhear something vital. I did hear things—fragmented confessions, dirty jokes, snippy exchanges, and a few noises that I couldn’t quite identify—but none of this was enough for me to piece together the whole story. I started to fill in the blanks myself. What I didn’t know, I made up. Happily, this is now my job, but during my adolescence, this tendency seems to have been a bit of a nuisance. According to my mother, my “fantasies” were always more colorful and dramatic than the reality. But I don’t think so…
In my late teens, I was a member of a local band composed mostly of adults. I told my mother there was something suspicious about the group’s oldest members. They were extraordinarily chummy. She blew me off, suggesting that I quit. Decades later, I found out: these people, in their seventies when I knew them, had once been members of a notorious “wife swapping” club. Imagine. Right there in the clarinet section.
One of these days, maybe I’ll find a place for that story in a novel—but in the meantime, it is nice to be grown, to live in a community of writers and storytellers (those that Margaret Maron, in her blog entry, called her “tribe”). As this weekend reminded me, I am lucky to be someone who is paid (a little) to make up stories. Writing is the best profession I can think of, though I still have to fight a genetically-implanted voice that says, “I wouldn’t tell that if I were you…”
I believe that what I tell, and to some extent, the way I tell it, is still shaped by that young nighttime spy. I remain fascinated by the story that lurks underneath the surface of things, the real person that lives behind the public persona, the society that can’t be seen from the street curb. I want to know all the secrets of a widowed piano teacher, that most staid of small town fixtures. I want to understand why an old bachelor has never married. I want to know the story of everyone buried in the family plot. These are the voices I listen for now when I lie awake at night.
-- Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Carrboro, NC. Her website is www.lynnyork.com and for her writing group, www.onewritinggroup.com.