Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Tell Me a Story
Last night, for the first time I can remember in the twenty years since she’s been gone, I dreamed about my grandmother. It took me all day to figure out why: Don Hewitt. What, you might ask, do they have in common? A world-traveling television news producer from New York City who created Sixty Minutes and a woman who lived a simple life in the mountains of North Carolina?
Don Hewitt died in August 2009 and last night Sixty Minutes reran an episode about his legacy. I vaguely remembered seeing parts of it when it first aired, but this time something caught my attention. It was Hewitt’s motto, the secret to his success. “Four little words that every child knows,” he said. “Tell me a story.” Tell me a story. Tell me a story, Nanny, I would say to my grandmother. Tell me a story. And she would, she always would.
Just before I watched Sixty Minutes, I’d been struggling with a lesson plan for my freshman composition class. The rhetorical triangle, discourse, context – all that academic speak is a foreign language to me. Story, on the other hand, is my native tongue. It’s native to all of us, the human need for story. And I realized that’s all we’re doing in composition class, talking about stories and how to tell them. I believe all good writing can be distilled to that simple and profound concept I learned as a child: tell me a story.
In the last years of her life, my grandmother slept in a twin bed in a room off the kitchen of her house. Whenever I stayed with her, I slept in the other twin bed right across from her. She would tell stories all night long and I would try and fail to stay awake so as not to miss a word. In my dream last night, we had on our nightgowns and were getting ready for bed. Her bed was a double and I started to climb in with her then decided I’d better sleep in the adjoining room. There was no door between our rooms and I could see her curled up under the covers. I lay there waiting for her to start talking, to tell me a story, but she never did. This morning I woke up feeling so sad and disappointed, totally clueless about the origin or meaning of the dream.
When I got home tonight after a busy but good day of writing and teaching writing, it occurred to me that the dream did mean something. It reminded me that my grandmother, my storyteller, is not really gone, she's just in the next room. The stories are still there, too, but they can't tell themselves. I remind myself of what I tell my students: you can’t just sit around wishing for stories, waiting for inspiration. You have to call them to you. “Tell me a story,” I say to myself. And I do, I always do.