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American Storytellers

I was blessed to grow up in a family of storytellers. Among many, there are two who come to mind—no longer with us—who were the best. On one side of the family was Uncle George. George was the kind of storyteller who kept the audience on the edge of their seat, waiting for that final, humorous punch line; and there was always humor in his stories. On the other side of the family was my Great Aunt Naomi. Unlike George, she spread the humor throughout her stories and due to all the laughter; she sometimes had a hard time finishing what she started. As I grew into my early teens, I found myself gravitating to these two at family gatherings; choosing to give up outside games with the cousins and siblings. I often found myself one of the youngest in the audience; which in some odd way made me feel important and grownup. I admired them both so much that I too aspired to be a storyteller. Unfortunately, what I found out early on was I couldn’t tell a story for the life of me. If I tried to tell a joke, I would trip all over the punch line and ruin it—there was laughter alright, but it wasn’t because of the joke. If I tried to tell a story that consisted of more than a few lines, I would rush through and leave out the most interesting parts, and the story would end up as bland as an insurance seminar.

Since I couldn’t tell a story—and since Uncle George and Aunt Naomi weren’t always handy—I found myself going to the school library and finding storytellers among the rows and rows of books on the shelf. When I discovered Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and Robert Heinlein, among many, I was in heaven. Here were men who knew how to tell a great story and not only did they make it interesting, but included enough humor to make it fun. As I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve continued to find authors who are good storytellers; Stephen King and John Grisham are just two. You can’t beat a good story to while away a cold winter’s night. [My friend Andy Thomas has a painting titled “American Storytellers” and it features Mark Twain as the center of attention among many great storytellers (see above); all of them enjoying their time together, sitting around a campfire and taking turns spinning tall tales.] I was content for the next few decades to let all of these talented men and women—here’s a great story by Elizabeth Kostova—fill my mind with wonderful tales of adventure, danger, and loves won and lost; not unlike sitting around the family living room and listening to Uncle George and Aunt Naomi.

And then something strange happened—strange as in God strange—at age fifty-three I discovered that I loved to write. And unlike my vacillating verbal attempts back in my youth, I found I could actually tell a decent story in prose. After completing my memoirs here and here, I’ve moved on to fiction. But who do I want to emulate in my writing? Well first, I want to be me; unique to any other writer I’ve known. My ultimate writing hero, Mark Twain, said to “write what you know”. I’ve listened to his advice and I never seem to run out of material. I wouldn’t dare to suggest that my writing is anywhere close to those outstanding authors I’ve mentioned above—although it improves with each attempt—and I also don’t pretend to be excellent in technical writing skills; such as Shakespeare, Whitman, or Dickens; nor do I aspire to be in their league. My words are spelled correctly, and for the most part the commas and apostrophes are in the appropriate spots on the paper; and I even throw in the occasional 50-cent word just to keep it interesting. What I’m more interested in is writing a good story; the heck with 50-cent words.

I remember one time correcting my father in his use of the English language—back when I was in my “too big for my britches” era, which some would say I’ve never left—and he asked me, and put me in my place at the same time, if I had understood his meaning. When I answered yes, he then asked me if that wasn’t what communication was mainly about. I made sure to never correct my Dad on any future occasions when he slipped up. What I really aspire to be is a great storyteller. Mark Twain also said, “My books are water; those of the great geniuses is wine. Everybody drinks water.” I want to write not to influence people who might be impressed by flowery language and tightly written prose, but to entertain those who are like me–the young lad in study hall looking for a good story to read–and maybe enlighten someone along the journey. For more great Mark Twain quotes on writing see here.

One other thing I’ve tried to emulate from Mr. Twain is to “Employ a simple, straightforward style”.  In other words, cut the crap. I’ve read a number of authors who seem to enjoy hearing themselves write. Stephen King is one of those. Don’t misunderstand me, Mr. King is a great writer, but it takes him so darn long to get to the conclusion of the story. If you happen to be stranded in a secluded cabin in the middle of a snowstorm and have no hope of being rescued for a week, don’t take one of my books with you; you could end up pounding your head on the wall after a few hours. In that situation, you might consider the over 900 pages of Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Great story; a little windy in the telling.

In summation; I want to be known as a storyteller—cross your fingers that my first fiction, The Boat, is picked up by a publisher—and with all the models of great storytellers who have gone before me, how could I go wrong? Too bad Uncle George and Aunt Naomi didn’t think to write down all of their stories. They would have made a great book to read on a cold winter’s night.