Growing up, I was always happy when we were invited over to the Waughs’ house for supper. Mrs. Waugh was the only person I knew who still made country ham and red eye gravy, but that was not the main attraction. The main attraction was her husband, Jim Waugh, who ranks as one of the best story tellers I ever knew. After supper, he’d stretch with his hands on the back of his neck. He’d get a certain knowing twinkle in his eye and look around at all of us as we waited to hear what tale he’d tell—maybe it would be about his time as a soda jerk in his hometown drugstore or maybe it would involve some ornery so-and-so he’d met on the road selling pharmaceuticals, or maybe (this was my favorite) he’d tell about how he met and fell in love with the prettiest little girl he’d ever seen.
I remember how the room would go still as he was talking, how we would all together be transported back to the place and time he described. I’d watched carefully because I wanted to be able to tell such stories myself. I was hoping that I growing up, I would encounter some interesting things to tell stories about and that I would learn how to tell them –make that room go still.
Honestly, I think I have yet to accomplish this goal. As I grew up, I found that I was terrible joke teller, and while I could tell a tolerable story, it would never live up to the Jim Waugh standard. So, I quit trying to mesmerize my friends over the dinner table and switched over to the written word. On paper, I do better. I can take my time, go back and revise. I can write and rewrite until my story unfolds exactly as I hear it in my mind. I’ve grown accustomed to this brand storytelling, to the idea that eventually, readers will encounter my tale in their own quiet rooms. This is immensely satisfying, and in many ways it beats telling stories in bars and dining rooms--where a tale can be subjected to interruptions and background noise….
So imagine my reaction a few weeks back when Jeff Polish, the founder of The Monti (http://www.themonti.org/ ) , asked me to tell a story at one of his storytelling shows. The rules: my story has to be true, it has to be twelve minutes long, and no notes are allowed. In other words—no hiding! No hiding behind the fiction, no hiding behind a text, and no hiding behind a nice big podium. It’ll be just me and my story. This is a terrifying prospect, but also it is the kind of challenge that I need to take on now and then.
Getting ready for the event has been an interesting process, and it’s been more like my normal writing work than I thought. The story still needed a shape, a beginning, middle and end. It needed a hook, an arc, and a good payoff. I had to review my history for the right details to tell the story. Once I had all of my material gathered and organized in my head, I started telling the story—to myself, to my dog, to every friend who would listen. Towards the end of this week, I had to start bribing my buddies with glasses of wine so they’d listen just to it one more time. Everyone (except my dog) reacted differently to different parts of my tale. This led to many changes in my story—a phrase added here, a section deleted. It was editing with an audience.
My story has gotten tighter, and I hope, better, over the course of this week, but it’s interesting that it will not take its final form until I stand in front of the Monti audience tonight and hold forth. Though I have a good idea of what my story will be, this is not like releasing a book. I’m giving up a measure of control to the moment. There’s something exhilarating about this notion, though it’s terrifying as well. I know that when I walk up in front of people this evening, I will do it in honor of our storytelling friend Jim Waugh. I hope I will do him proud.
Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her website is www.lynnyork.com.