Last Saturday night, my 93-year-old friend Val got up in front of 250 people at a storytelling event and told a tale that she’s kept secret for 80 years.
Recalling her life as a girl in the 1930s, she spoke of running happily to a one-room, red-brick school house with her twin brother. She spoke of collecting hickory nuts and eating wild berries along the route, as blackbirds sang overhead. By the time she was 13, though, Val dreaded going to school. The teacher had taken an unseemly interest in her. When he insisted on driving her home after a Christmas concert practice, she leapt from the car when he tried to grab her. She then ran for her front door, but the teacher followed, crushing her against the spines of the radiator in her front hall. She was too terrified to scream. “The last six months of school were a frightening game of cat and mouse,” Val told the assembled. Not long after, that teacher was jailed for his unlawful involvement with another girl who had gotten pregnant. Haunted by what might have been her fate, Val never walked through the village of her childhood in the ensuing 80 years. Still, she dreams of going back. “Perhaps the ghost of my twin brother will take my hand, and we’ll skip as children safely from school to home,” she said. “May blackbirds sing again for us.”
Following the public telling of this truly private story, a number of people — many in midlife and older — approached Val. They, too, had similar things happen to them. They too, never told a soul.
Such is the power of personal storytelling. It’s both confession and exorcism.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” American poet and memoirist Maya Angelou once said. We’re never more connected than when we share the honest truth about our lives. We recognize each other in that moment, even if we are complete strangers.
I’ve always been drawn to other people’s stories. As a kid riding in the backseat of our family’s car at night, I would scan the windows of the houses we passed. Were the lives behind those heavy living room drapes anything like mine? This kind of curiosity is one of the reasons why personal memoir is the fastest growing literary genre (The category exploded by 400 percent during the 2000s.). I might not have grown up with an absent, alcoholic or depressive mother like Jeannette Walls (The Glass Castle), Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) or Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club), but I can still relate to their sorrows and struggles. What’s more, I admire how these writers have made art from the chaotic bits of their lives and hope that a little bit of their resilience will rub off on me.
Still, you don’t need a whole book to tell a life story. In fact, you can do it in six words. Six-Word Memoirs, a project of Smith Magazine, has collected more than half a million short sharp tales. The founders were inspired by Ernest Hemingway, who, according to literary legend, was once challenged to complete a novel in only six words. He wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Intrigued by the six-word idea, about five years ago, I organized the 6-Minute Memoir. It’s an annual, live storytelling night that features a dozen speakers who share tales on a theme within a strict six-minute time limit. Over the past year, it’s become a bi-monthly event and, to date, more than 100 storytellers have shared tales on topics, such as “Lost and Found” and “Leaps of Faith.” Last Saturday, the theme was “Homeward Bound,” and that’s where my friend Val shared her harrowing childhood experience.
The need to tell our own stories is primitive. Every religion is based on stories. Jesus enthralled crowds with parables at the well. Today, storytelling is a big form of entertainment. The public radio show, The Moth, is credited for the current popularity of confessional-style storytelling. The nonprofit StoryCorps, which records people telling stories about a key moment in their lives, has amassed 50,000 stories that can be accessed online. It seems that in this secular age, people are more hungry for stories than they are for sermons.
I wanted to learn more about how to tell a good story. So I signed up for a 10-week course with award winning playwright Tracey Erin Smith, founder of Toronto’s Soulo Theatre. She helps people turn the raw material of their lives into a 10-minute, one-person show that they perform live on stage with their classmates. There are props, dialogue and music, too. Through a series of exercises, Smith gets her students to peel off their mask and share something transformative that happened to them.
On opening night, my heart beat wildly as the curtain opened and I stepped into the blinding stage light to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman. I felt as vulnerable as if I were standing there stark naked. My mouth was also parched as I recited my opening lines: “I once had two fathers. One in heaven and one on earth. This is how I lost them both.” My performance was wobbly, but I got through it. I took the mask off, and it felt good to be seen.
“Everyone has a powerful story to tell,” Smith says, adding that her students think that they have nothing important to share. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t have any stories,’ and then after the first class, they’re not sure which one to pick.” Smith is convinced that the world would be a much better place if more of us shared our stories: “When you know someone’s story, you can’t hate them.” In fact, she says, you fall a little bit in love with them.
Another friend of mine, Jeff Griffiths, told a story the same night that Val told her own — the details of which he had only ever briefly outlined to me. Twenty-five years ago, he went on a camping trip with his 55-year-old father in the interior of Algonquin Park. And while building a fire, his father died of a heart attack. Jeff spent a sleepless night in the tent, listening to the rattling of the tarp that he had laid over his father’s body and secured with stones. In the morning, when he set off in a canoe for help, he looked back at the mound on the ground. “It looked like a cowboy’s grave in the desert,” he said. The last words he had heard his father say were, “It’s good to be here.”
Jeff is no stranger to loss. His 52-year-old wife Katrine died less than two years ago. And then his mom Joyce died just four months after that. Jeff, a father of two, is writing a story about how he coped that first year. “I want to explore that time very deeply,” he says. “And I want to share it.”
American writer William Faulkner once said, “If a story is in you, it has got to come out.”
It takes a brave person to tell their story. And we are made all the better by listening.