In her masterpiece, The God of Small Things, Indian novelist Arundhati Roy says this about stories: “The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen.”
I have told a bunch of stories over the years, about travels and meals, about listening to the radio beneath the wide Texas sky in the middle of the night, about my father the charming traveling salesman, about being a girl in Kentucky, about finding my sister in a dirt pen with a vicious Doberman, about having babies, about life and death and all that lies between. I have always believed, inherently, that stories matter.
I know this is true because of the stories my students tell. In the short five years that I’ve taught older adults in creative nonfiction writing classes, I have been moved and changed by stories of courage and creativity, of ordinary life that shines with extraordinary beauty, of adventure and misadventure — stories that strike right at the place inside ourselves that reminds us what it means to be human.
Some of my students have told stories of travel in foreign lands, of work and adventure in exotic places. Others have stuck closer to home.
Some have described the mechanics of hiring and firing and how their businesses work. A swarthy man in a class of older adults held us all in sway with his story of the trucking company he ran, in particular the story of hiring a tough but reliable, tattooed ex-con to carry cargo across the United States. When Nick talked about trucking, he told us something about this modern world that we hadn’t considered before. Who would have thought it? We were mesmerized.
Another student, a country boy who’d moved to the big city and worked in the world of finance, stunned us with his story of the woman he worked for, an investment manager who, long before Bernie Madoff hit the news, fleeced hundreds of modest homeowners and working people, promising them wealth while stealing their life savings and spending it on diamonds and trips to the Bahamas. His grasp of humanity and greed and the hunger for wealth that can twist lives into knots of misery left us wondering: Could we have been seduced by her too?
I had a student who wrote precisely and mechanically; his stories sounded a little like notes from clinical proceedings. Until one day, buried in his stiff prose, we saw a submerged gem: the amazing tale of his mother, in the early 1950s, loading up her car with three children and a nervous aunt, and driving the great circuitous route from central Texas to Canada, then the Pacific Northwest, camping along the way, then down the West Coast to San Diego and all the way back home. She died when he was 16, but gave him this first adventure, when he was a 6-year old in knee pants who thought this was just what mothers did.
My students have written about abuse and illness, losing their spouses, caring for their dying parents, about recovery and faith. They have struggled to give themselves permission to own their stories, to understand that their version of the way it happened is exactly that — their experience, their understanding, their claim to their own lives.
One student came to class and told us she couldn’t write for beans but wanted to leave behind the story of her rural, Midwestern upbringing for her grandchildren. She’d retired from a career teaching physical education and hadn’t spent much time pondering words and paragraphs. Armed with a basic writing assignment and just a few words of advice on how to move a narrative forward, she returned to class the next week with an exquisite memoir, the story of living on an Indiana farm with no electricity, of the corn harvest and the bouncing wagons, of the dark corn crib and the cobs saved to stoke the fire in the cook stove. She didn’t embellish or romanticize. Her prose was as clear and cutting as the Indiana sunlight. We knew, without her telling us so, that she had been forever shaped by hard work and clear-cut tasks, and that wherever she lived this 1940s place was her true home.
Great Stories, says Arundhati Roy, “are as familiar as the house you live in.”
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.