How to Tell a Captivating Story
"These walls have ears," Grandma cautioned when she spotted me scooting around the legs of my mother and her sisters to find my perch under the dining room table. I'd crouch lower, the mouse in the corner, all ears for the talk that followed. In the distance, a trolley bell ding-dinged across Taylor Avenue. Street sounds drifted in through the windows, shouts of neighbor boys playing stickball, nagging me to join them. I didn't budge. Even then, I believed hiding was a game the women allowed me to play and those stories were meant for me. What better way to teach a child that some things are not what they appear and not all history is written?
If my sense of storytelling began anywhere, it was in my grandmother's dining room. There I learned to love the sound of language, how words hold a cadence. There I learned to listen, to know when a story was about to take a turn, when the ending played out slowly, like grosgrain ribbon let loose from a package, or suddenly, like a door slamming in a gust of wind. The women in my grandmother's house kept up their spirits with stories of love and grief, anger and laughter. They did not mince words, but they did drag out the truth in a string of metaphors and parables. What is a story but a way to help us see, if only for a second, the ways of the world in a new light? There might be many versions of the same tale (how many tales did Scheherazade really spin?) Are they all true? Yes, but only when the telling keeps listeners waiting anxiously to hear how the hero will be rewarded, how a wayward relative fared, how a disguise was broken and last-forever love was found. Bandits and bad girls, angels and innocents; they all have equal footing. We boo and hiss and hope to discover some shadow of ourselves.
"A story! A story!" children shout. For them, stories come as easy as play. Big kids whisper something the little kids pass along. How else are they to know which teacher is forgiving or which one holds a grudge? They hear how words are held together with "What happened next?" They know stories work best when the intrigue sucks in listeners until they are one with the teller of the tale. Children listen to grown-ups hold forth in beauty parlors and barbershops, at barbecues and card parties. No child ever tires of asking: "Where were you when...?" And no adult ever tires of the answer.
"Here is my story. I give it to you, you give it to me. Do with it what you will," the African griot says. I am now about the same age as my grandmother was when I eavesdropped in the dining room. I am a folklorist, a poet who researches and reads folktales. When I'm very lucky, in some distant place such as Madagascar or Belize, or in a friend's apartment in Brooklyn or Los Angeles I'll encounter a storyteller who takes me back to my hideout under the oak table. A teller of tales who lets words find their own level until listener and story are one, who takes us to that delicious moment when we are contained within the story and it shapes our perceptions of what this world might be and where we are going in it.
Bless the stories for all they give us and all we take away from them. Where would we be without them?
Colleen McElroy was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a military family that moved often. She earned a PhD in ethnolinguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions from the University of Washington. McElroy has written short stories, plays, television scripts and nonfiction; her collections of poetry include Sleeping with the Moon (2007), winner of the 2008 PEN Oakland National Literary Award; Travelling Music (1998); What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968–1988 (1990); Queen of the Ebony Isles (1984), winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation; and Winters without Snow (1979). Her honors include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Fulbright Program.